Montgomery County has hired a private, nonprofit agency to probe the extent of housing discrimination in the county.

The organization, Suburban Maryland Fair Housing, will conduct 30 tests for racial bias in real estate sales and rentals during the next year at a cost of $3,740 to the county.

"In recent years our testing has turned up evidence of subtle discrimination more often than blatant," said Rita Morgan, former SMFH president and now head of testing. For example, she said, a white tester might be shown a two-bedroom apartment, while a black tester who asks for the same type of housing is told that none is available.

Despite continued instances of racial bias, Morgan believes that it has diminished in recent years. "There has been a lot of consciousness raising" among those involved in housing, she added. "I think things are better than they were."

Testers from the Hispanic and Asian communities have been difficult to recruit, she said. "But we make an effort to test for discrimination against these groups when we have the personnel."

Testing for unfair rental and sales tactics has been the organization's major activity during its 20 years of existence. Investigators, one white and the other a minority, usually black, pose as potential renters or buyers. Each visits the same for-rent or for-sale house or apartment, with the white tester usually going first, Morgan said.

The two testers agree in advance to give similar descriptions of themselves and their housing needs, including their salaries and backgrounds, and the type of home they want. The minority tester is sometimes depicted as slightly better qualified than the white tester.

If their reports indicate discrimination, the white tester will be asked to follow up with a call or visit to the landlord, said Morgan. "If he is told he can have the apartment, we probably would test further," she added.

The housing organization did similar tests during the past two years for the county Human Relations Commission, which presses charges in cases of suspected racial bias. SMFH executive director Barbara Smerko said that before it was awarded commission contracts, SMFH conducted tests with its own funds.

This year's contract is with the county Department of Housing and Community Development. Smerko said SMFH has asked the department for an $11,500 contract to cover testing in the fiscal year beginning next July. Funds for this year's contract, which is expected to cover only a portion of the costs, are from the county's block grant fund.

In the past, volunteers have done the testing, but fewer are available this year. This year's testers will be paid fees ranging from $15 to $25, said Smerko.

Morgan said SMFH workers may also test for discrimination against renters and buyers because of marital status or handicap. Bias against these two groups is illegal under Maryland law, and indications are that complaints of discrimination against single parents are rising, she said.

State and county law also prohibit housing discrimination based on creed, color, national ancestry and religion.