FHCWM finds alarming rate of racial discrimination

December 20, 2010
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Although the housing discrimination complaints based on racial prejudice that were made to the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan dropped by 62 percent from 2006 to 2009, recent investigations conducted by the center found the strongest evidence in the agency’s 30-year history that differential treatment based on race exists in the region’s rental market.

FHCWM completed 257 conclusive matched-pair housing tests from January through November of this year and found that racial discrimination was present in 148 of those cases, or nearly 58 percent. The race-based tests were conducted on a random-survey basis, as well as in response to complaints filed with the center. And the finding from this year’s testing was nearly double the number FHCWM traditionally has uncovered. According to the center, that historical number has hovered around 30 percent in past years, and the agency characterized this year’s finding as “an alarming rate.”

“While the FHCWM has experienced a decrease in the number of complaints filed on the basis of race over the last few years, this does not necessarily indicate a decrease in the number of incidences of housing discrimination on the basis of race. In fact, the FHCWM has increasingly found evidence of differential treatment on the basis of race in its investigations,” wrote Elizabeth Vezino, the center’s director of advocacy, in an e-mail to the Business Journal.

“The high rates of race-based evidence in FHCWM testing most likely are reflective of the FHCWM’s increased capacity to detect the widespread prevalence of housing discrimination than of an actual increase in the instances of discrimination,” she added.

A matched-pair housing test consists of having a minority and a white individual respond separately to a rental ad. In one case, a landlord told a black FHCWM volunteer that a unit wouldn’t be available until the end of the following month and said there weren’t any other units available. But just an hour later, the same landlord told a white FHCWM volunteer that a unit would be available near the beginning of the next month and then showed the volunteer a vacant unit.

In another case, a landlord told a black volunteer that a house was rented and directed her to another rental property that was reportedly in poor condition and in a low-income neighborhood. When the same landlord was approached by a white volunteer, the landlord told her of an available rental house in better condition and in a better neighborhood. Another landlord told a white volunteer that the rental agreement included one month of free rent, but never mentioned the offer to the black volunteer.

Vezino said the center will conduct follow-up tests and pursue alleged violations as efforts to eliminate housing discrimination and to promote a diverse and open rental market. She said FHCWM also will continue its education and outreach programs to raise awareness of fair-housing rights and to encourage compliance with fair-housing laws.

Vezino added that racial discrimination is often difficult to detect because it is usually done subtly and on an individual basis. She said despite the drop in complaints based on racial discrimination the past few years, race still remains the No. 2 complaint made to the center, second only to disability.

“Another explanation for the decrease in complaints filed on the basis of race may be that practices of housing discrimination have become more subtle and unrecognizable to those seeking housing. A person may receive false or inconsistent information, but without any comparator may never realize that they did not obtain accurate information,” said Vezino.

“Therefore, many victims of housing discrimination do not recognize that they have suffered a discriminatory practice, possibly because the practice was subversive or systemic and/or they are not aware of their fair-housing rights. For these reasons, matched-pair testing and education and outreach become increasingly important to overcome housing discrimination throughout West Michigan.”

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