Journalism in the Public Interest

Housing Crisis: Widespread Discrimination; Little Taste for Enforcement

A nationwide survey by HUD reveals, again, that minorities face racism in the housing market. But HUD, again, chooses not to punish the offenders.


A nationwide survey by HUD reveals, again, that minorities face racism in the housing market. But HUD, again, chooses not to punish the offenders. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The results of Tuesday's U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development national study on the persistence of housing discrimination are unlikely to shock: Racial and ethnic minorities continue to find themselves locked out of many housing opportunities.

No, the more startling thing may be what HUD intends to do with its findings. HUD spent $9 million to contract with the Urban Institute to conduct 8,000 undercover tests in 28 metropolitan areas in order to expose illegal housing discrimination. Yet the federal agency has no plans to use these tests to actually enforce the law and punish the offenders.

Once a decade for the last 40 years, HUD has produced a massive survey to reveal the pervasive discrimination that, year after year, exists in America's housing marketplace. But as ProPublica reported late last year, HUD as a policy refuses to invest the same kinds of time, resources and techniques in prosecuting those guilty of the very discrimination its expensive studies uncover. Instead, HUD outsources testing used to find and punish discriminatory landlords to dozens of small, poorly funded fair housing groups scattered across the country.

And Congress has shown little appetite for forcing HUD to do more meaningful enforcement. A bill that would create a national testing enforcement program at HUD is expected to soon die in committee for the third time.

In an interview Tuesday, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan defended both the decision to conduct the survey and the Obama administration's commitment to ending the kinds of discrimination it revealed.

"The level of investment in fair housing enforcement has been significantly increased by this president," Donovan said.

Because housing discrimination these days is often more subtle — the survey released Tuesday said the kind of "door slamming" racism of years past had declined — testing is considered the best means of uncovering illegal behavior by homeowners, landlords and real estate agents.

According to HUD — the chief enforcement agency of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act — running its own national testing program to pursue violators would compromise the agency's neutrality. Critics, including the man who created the fair housing testing enforcement program at the U.S. Department of Justice, called that stance "absurd."

In the study released Tuesday, the Urban Institute sent paired testers, one white and one a member of a minority group, to contact housing providers who'd recently advertised homes and apartments. The pairs shared similar stories with the providers about their qualifications and then recorded their treatment.

The good news is the testers — who all presented themselves as highly qualified — found little discrimination when trying to make an appointment to view a home or apartment. Black renters calling about an advertised unit are far less likely to be told it's unavailable than a decade ago.

But the study found significantly different treatment once testers met with agents.

Black, Asian and Latino testers were consistently shown or told about fewer units.

For example, white homebuyers were shown nearly 20 percent more homes as equally qualified black and Asian homebuyers. In one test, a real estate agent refused to meet with the black tester until she was prequalified by a lender but made an appointment with the white tester without asking for prequalification.

Donovan said the findings revealed a "sad" truth that the long struggle to end housing discriminations continues. "Although we've come a long way from the days of blatant in-your-face injustice, discrimination still persists. Any time freedom of choice is attacked it is a threat to the ideals we all value — equality and fairness," he said.

Donovan said these findings represent more than just numbers, and underscore, for instance, a family's inability to move across town to a safer neighborhood with better schools. That the discrimination is "hidden doesn't mean it is any less harmful," he said.

Margery Austin Turner of the Urban Institute said the discrimination uncovered in the study likely understates the problem because buyers presented themselves as highly qualified and did not necessarily represent the typical prospective minority home buyer.

"The discrimination that persists today matters," she said. "Not only is it fundamentally unfair that somebody doesn't find out about available housing because of the color of their skin, but it also really raises the costs of housing searches for minorities. It restricts their housing choices."

Turner recommended increased testing, including at the national level, and strong enforcement.

The agency's unwillingness to fund an internal testing program to not just study but to enforce the 45-year-old Fair Housing Act enforcement has long been criticized as part of its overall failure to address wide-scale housing discrimination.

The general population is now experiencing discrimination fatigue. Constant articles harping on diversity, multiculturalism, multilingualism, fairness, compassion, etc, to the point that no one gives a s*** anymore. The media is fabricating racism and howling “DISCRIMINATION!!” at every turn. It’s simply a bore.

John McCarthy

June 11, 2013, 9:11 p.m.

The issue isn’t that the racism is fabricated; read the article, they give concrete examples. The issue is that our society is extremely racist, and people don’t like hearing about it because it makes them uncomfortable.

John McCarthy,
Our Society is not extremely racist.  Get out and see the world.  See Britian, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain.  Compared to them we’re a bunch of saints.  There are reasons why police don’t venture into large stretches of Paris, those reasons are bound up in racism on both sides.  Humans are naturally very bound to their groups.  In that reguard, the US is better than most.  If you think that the millenials are better, try to imagine one of the heroes of the Girls series dating a young Republican.  May not be race, but it is tribalism which is all racism is.
By the way, anybody know who started the pratice of sending out testers (and prosecuting) on housing fairness.  Hint, he came before G. Ford.

Not one mention of discrimination against people with disabilities…

Dave, the fact that every country in the world is crappier than ours doesn’t mean we shouldn’t improve.  I don’t know where you were raised, but I was raised to believe that we should be the best we can be, not just the best of the pile.

(I’m curious, how do you feel about our spending more on our military than the next twenty-six countries combined.  Do you think that we should be spending so much more than the rest of the world?  Because I’ll admit this is a point where I’d say we don’t need to be that much better, so I’m wondering if there’s some correlation.)

Other countries may well be far more racist, but we still need to get past the infantile idea that equality means taking away from the current people of privilege.

Eddie, consider a simple analogy.  If you work in a huge skyscraper with only one working toilet (let’s put it in the basement), it shouldn’t be offensive to help the people in the penthouse get easier access, and it wouldn’t be a devious plan to deprive the folks on the first floor of their right to use the potty.

By the same token, we spent three hundred years arranging society so that non-Europeans (and non-men) didn’t get a fair shake, for one reason or another.  We may have disassembled most of that formal infrastructure (to the cries of unfairness to the privileged, the whole way), but the groups are still stuck at a disadvantage.

There are two ways to look at this.  First, you could wonder if there’s some inherent, possibly genetic reason for their failure (or if their failures are imaginary) despite more than a century without slavery and almost fifty years with laws that ban overt discrimination.  Alternatively, you could consider the possibility that starting a mile behind everybody else at a marathon is going to take more effort for lesser results and stop worrying about the “attacks” on the traditional winners of the race.

Ending this discrimination is obviously not the goal of these tests, or the HUD anymore, as if the goal was to end this discrimination, the HUD would not be performing a wide scale survey for nothing more than statistics, furthermore those statistics and test findings themselves would not be ignored by practice; rather if ending discrimintaion was the goal of the HUD, it and any statistical findings would lead to several investigations of those suspected of discriminating.

I find the whole thing to be a waste of $9 million, which definitely could have instead been spent to help several people in several cities find a home. But instead the US taxpayers just spent $9 million for a survey to tell us the specifics about that we already generally know, and don’t have a plan or agency which will do anything to change it.

Great job HUD, way to make people want to write their representatives about pulling your funding…

When you use the law to discriminate

you are going to be discriminated against

@John,  The fact that every country in the world is crappier than we are is a very good reason NOT to say “our society is extremely racist”, it is, comparitively speaking, one of the best societies.  Only ones better are so small and so homogenious that it is hard to be racist.
How do I feel about our military spending more than the next 26 countries?  Look at Turkey.  They had a strong military that defended the constitution from Ataturk.  The current islamist government destroyed the Turkish army and its trational place in society.  That worked out well.  We developed our standing peacetime army in response to the USSR.  How did that work out?  Actually pretty well, if you look at Russia today.  The only ones who seem to like the current government there or the one previous are pretty disguisting tyrants and mafioso.  So is the United States historically great and something to be proud of.  YES.  Has it been bad?  Yes.  How does it history, good and bad, compare to other powerful nations (including those 26 next in line)?  Real Damn Good.  How do we compare to Russia?  Do we have to ask?  China, ask an Indian, or a Tai.  England?  Ask an Irishman or an Indian.  France?  Don’t ask, just look, from a distance, at Hatii and the Congo?  We done bad?  Yea.  We done good?  Hell yeah, we done real good.  How do I feel about us spending more than them?  Real Damn Good!  The alternative is them spending more than us.  Historically this has not worked out well.  Has the United States abused people around the world?  Yes.  If the United States had been different (say, like Switzerland) would more people have been abused?  Yes.
Do I want better housing enforcement?  Yes!  Remember that the housing enforcement that this article discusses was started by Nixon, and has historically been better supported by Republican administrations.  My recommendation for better housing enforcement?  One party talks, one party does.

Charles Ellsworth

June 14, 2013, 5:21 p.m.

Metropolitan Areas sampled in this study:

1.  Albuquerque, NM
2.  Atlanta, GA
3.  Baltimore, MD
4.  Boston, MA
5.  Chicago/Gary/Lake Co., IL
6.  Cleveland, OH
7.  Columbia, SC
8.  Dallas, TX
9.  Detroit, MI
10.  Fort Worth/Arlington, TX
11.  Greensboro/Winston-Salem/Highpoint , NC
12.  Houston/Brazoria Co., TX
13.  Kansas City, MO and KS
14.  Los Angeles/Long Beach, CA
15.  Miami/Hialeah, FL
16.  Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon, NJ
17.  Newark, NJ
18.  New York, NY
19.  Orange County, CA
20.  Philadelphia PA NJ
21.  Richmond/Petersburg, VA
22.  Riverside/San Bernardino, CA
23.  San Antonio, TX
24.  San Diego, CA
25.  San Jose, CA
26.  Seattle/Everett, WA
27.  Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater, FL
28.  Washington, DC/MD/VA

This study is not an accurate reflection of the entire country of United States.  It is a fact to say, this study reflects each of the 28 areas accurately when data is viewed of each of the areas as contributing, but not as a whole.

Two problems as I see it.

Institutional racism:  Racism as a business model, exercised by the banks.    Not especially new, but unconscionable.

Lack of enforcement:  As was published in the book, Predator Nation by Charles Ferguson, of Inside Job fame.. Eric Holder was a partner in Covington & Burling the outfit that did the legal work for the bank owned database MERS that is competing with the counties to hold (or cloud) title to land.    Could that be a reason for “little taste for enforcement”?

In Oregon, MERS does not have standing in court.  Thus, you cannot be foreclosed upon by a database there.  Not so in most states.
Foreclosure, unlike bankruptcy, is unique, state by state.  Land laws, as they ought to be… are local.

MERS is a clouded title engine that will be a full employment act for lawyers for the next decade, in my opinion.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Segregation Now

Segregation Now: Investigating America's Racial Divide

Investigating America’s racial divide in education, housing and beyond.

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