Report Shows Discrimination in Rental Markets

By Sara Gebhardt
Saturday, April 30, 2005

The end of April marks the end of National Fair Housing Month (along with National Poetry Month, International Guitar Month, Stress Awareness Month, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month and National Home Improvement Month, among others).

To honor National Fair Housing Month, the District-based National Fair Housing Alliance recently issued its 2005 Fair Housing Trends Report. The report cites trends and incidents of discrimination in renting and buying real estate and is based on data compiled in 2004 from National Fair Housing Alliance member agencies nationwide, the Housing and Urban Development Department, the Justice Department, and state and local government agencies.

In the report, rental grievances represent the largest category of complaints for housing discrimination. "Most housing discrimination complaints are against apartment owners and managers for discriminating against renters on the basis of race, disability, family status and national origin," the report says.

"As always, there are more complaints in the area of rental discrimination than in sales, lending or insurance, primarily because rental discrimination is a lot easier to spot," said Shanna L. Smith, president and chief executive of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

"If you call an apartment and they tell you it's already rented but you see the ad's still running, that may make you suspicious. If you go see an apartment and if you're a person of color or a member of a family with kids, sometimes you feel there is discrimination," she said. "With apartment locater services, if you pay a fee, you do expect to see apartments in a variety of areas, and sometimes it's obvious because of your race or national origin that you're being steered toward neighborhoods that look like you," Smith said.

According to the report, there were 13,804 complaints about discrimination in the rental market reported by private groups. The report identifies ways discrimination occurs: "the denial of available rental units; refusal to make a reasonable accommodation for a disabled individual; higher rents or security deposits for minorities and individuals in other protected classes; segregation of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans or families with children to certain parts of a building or complex; restriction of access to rental property amenities such as swimming pools or community rooms; or the initiation of eviction proceedings against white tenants who have visitors who are African American, Latino or Asian American."

Smith believes that there are many more incidents of prejudice than there are complaints.

"Our data is the tip of the iceberg. We estimate that just on race and national origin issues, there are more than 4 million instances [in both rentals and sales] occurring, 25,000 being reported," she said. "When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, a week after Dr. [Martin Luther] King's assassination, it was designed to do two things: to end housing discrimination and, within constitutional limitations, to promote housing integration."

She said, "If rental complexes are limiting people's access -- based on disability, race, nationality, families with children -- that's perpetuating segregation."

Smith's group and other fair housing organizations investigate complaints and do their own rental audits in which they send out testers of different races to measure availability and information about pricing and treatment by landlords. In cities such as Washington, with tight housing markets, it is more difficult to prove discrimination, Smith said, because landlords usually have their pick of many applicants and those who suspect discrimination are less likely to complain because they know there is heavy competition for the unit.

In such tight rental markets, investigators compile other kinds of data to discover whether there is covert discrimination. In areas with diverse populations, they often check landlords' track records to see if they are choosing only members of certain ethnic groups or only tenants without children. Or investigators will look for potential red flags, such as landlords who mandate that they run a credit check on all applicants before showing them a unit, a policy that effectively closes the door on applicants who do not want to risk any adverse effect on their credit report before they are sure they want the apartment. The key factor for those analyzing housing practices is finding out if a landlord or management company continually turns down financially able and otherwise qualified minorities or members of other protected classes.

Smith hopes the data in the report make people aware of discriminatory housing customs and show how far-reaching segregation is.

"People don't make the connection between housing, schools, employment and education. If you go to the school that's in your neighborhood, if that school is segregated, you find kids growing up without learning how to interact or understanding different cultures. Often schools in black communities don't receive as much funding to support them and then once they get out, they don't have the same quality of education that suburban schools offer and have a harder time finding jobs," she said.

Those who think they have experienced discrimination when searching for a rental unit or a home can file a grievance with their local private fair housing center, which can be contacted through the National Fair Housing Alliance's Web site, , or at 202-898-1661.

Q I want to maintain a good relationship with my neighbors. This winter, I came home from out of town to find that someone had parked in our numbered space. I trudged through the snow to find out if one of our next-door neighbors had accidentally parked there, but they said no. There is a sign outside the parking lot that says visitors will be towed for not parking in the visitor spots. I had the car towed and about an hour later, someone knocked on my door livid that their guest's car had been towed. They said that I should have gone to every house in the community to find out whose car it was. Someone else from the homeowners association called to say that I should have parked down the street, half a mile away. I did not agree, because my rent includes the parking space. I feel that I should be able to use the space. What are your thoughts? -- Washington

AI think if you really did what you could to avoid towing that car, you should have a clear conscience about the incident. Because your specific spot is included in your rent, you have a right to park there.

That said, now that some time has passed since you had the car towed, you should propose that your landlord hold a community meeting in which the residents talk about visitor parking and what to do if somebody parks in their spot. Chances are, most people would have done what you did, and holding a forum about it will remind people that guests should not park in rented, numbered spots. You can also have your landlord follow up with a notice regarding the guest parking policy and instructions about how to deal with an incorrectly parked car.

Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail atgebhardts@washpost.comor by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company