Housing discrimination alive and well in Alameda

A series of tests with pairs of Black and white investigators has revealed a high level of housing discrimination against African Americans in the city of Alameda, Calif., the nonprofit organization Sentinel Fair Housing said last week.

In its report of a study funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the housing watchdog organization said its trained pairs of investigators found that 66 percent of African American testers received differential or discouraging treatment.

The study was initiated after a number of African American rental tenants who had been forced to move from a large apartment complex told Sentinel Fair Housing of their concerns about discrimination as they searched for new accommodations.

In race audit tests in the spring and summer of 2004, Sentinel sent 27 pairs of testers — matched as to jobs, income and rental histories except that Black testers were slightly more qualified — to 23 locations in Alameda. Locations were selected randomly from published listings, or were chosen from units advertised with phrases like “Good safe neighborhood” and units in census tracts with lower than average African American residents.

Only 11 percent of tests clearly showed no differential treatment against African Americans.

In 44 percent of tests differential treatment was recorded including general discouragement, assumptions that Black applicants had rent subsidies, being quoted higher security deposits, being informed of fewer available units, being offered less promotional materials and not being told of move-in specials, being told different rental terms and conditions, and encouraging statements to white testers.

Another 44 percent of encounters were deemed “inconclusive” because testers saw different rental agents at the same complex. But even in this group, African American testers experienced different treatment in 58 percent of cases.

The incidence of discrimination in the Alameda study was much higher than in other HUD studies nationwide.

“Many of the managers or owners have a stereotypical and erroneous opinion that a Black person is going to be a less desirable tenant,” Sentinel’s Executive Director Ramona Breed told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Alameda, an island community of 72,000-plus residents, across the bay from San Francisco, is far from the only California community where housing discrimination is rife. Frances Espinosa, executive director of the Housing Rights Center in Los Angeles, said her agency received some 1,400 complaints and investigated over 500 of them during the fiscal year that ended last June 30. Over the last three years, she said, the largest number of complaints were received from individuals with disabilities, with discrimination based on race and national origin, or on “family status” (children under 18 in the household), close behind.

“We have seen many cases where recent immigrants — especially those from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America — have been targeted because landlords think they won’t complain,” Espinosa added. Because many tenants are being forced to move by rising rents, she said, many cities are strengthening their protections for renters.

Espinosa said the Housing Rights Center regularly employs matched testing, including a recent survey which found a high incidence of discrimination in home sales.

The most recent audit with matched testers by Fair Housing of Marin, north of San Francisco, found racial discrimination in 60 percent of instances where applicants of color sought to enter assisted residential care facilities in Sonoma and Marin counties.

In studies involving general rental housing, Executive Director Nancy Kenyon said Latino residents experienced the greatest discrimination, while issues involving disability and children were also common, she said.

“It often happens in subtle ways,” Kenyon added. “The ‘smile of discrimination’ or the statement that ‘it’s taken’ while the ad is still running in the newspaper.” She said Latinos and African Americans also often experience discrimination in applying for mortgage loans and homeowner’s insurance.

Kenyon said the Marin Board of Supervisors and Fair Housing have joined together to form a task force on housing issues which has been conducting trainings for property owners concerning federal anti-discrimination laws.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.