Housing Discrimination Rife In D.C. Region 50 Years After Fair Housing Became Law
April 11, 2018
By The 2030 Group
By: Ally Schweitzer
Scratching down figures on a sheet of paper, Lisa Rice sits at a conference table adding up the number of housing discrimination cases reported to D.C.’s Equal Rights Center last year.
“One hundred twenty-six,” Rice concludes, setting down her pen. But, she says, that number is extremely misleading.
“The overwhelming majority of fair housing cases do not get reported,” says Rice, CEO of the D.C.-based National Fair Housing Alliance. “People don’t recognize signs of discrimination. They don’t know when it’s happening.”
Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act was enacted to protect Americans from housing discrimination, the practice is alive and well, Rice says. Even in jurisdictions with strong fair-housing laws like Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., housing discrimination leads people to exhaust their time and resources searching for a home, remain in unsafe housing or even fall into homelessness.
But impediments to fair housing are harder to recognize than they once were, Rice says, and homeseekers today confront roadblocks that are systemic and difficult to pinpoint.
Unequal Access To The Financial System
People of color in D.C. are much more likely than whites to be denied conventional home loans, according to a recent report by Reveal, a radio program produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Reveal found that black, Latino, Asian and Native American homeseekers in the District are denied home loans at twice the rate as whites. It also discovered that JPMorgan Chase & Co., one of the region’s biggest lenders, provides far fewer loans to African Americans and Latinos than it does for whites.
People of color also face barriers to credit that can determine where they can or can’t live. When landlords use credit history to size up housing applicants, Rice says, that locks out people who have spotty credit or are “credit invisible.”
“Many underserved groups have not had a long history of accessing credit inside the financial mainstream,” Rice says. “So when you try to use credit scoring systems to determine the riskiness of these people, you’re going to have a disparate outcome for people with disabilities, single female-headed households, young folks just starting out … and people of color, who for the entire history of the country have been relegated to the fringe financial markets.”
D.C. residents with Housing Choice vouchers often face limited options for where they can live, and not just because D.C. housing is expensive.
A recent report from the Equal Rights Center shows a pattern of discrimination against voucher holders by D.C. property managers. Discriminating by income source is illegal in D.C., although many residents may not know that, says Kate Scott, the center’s deputy director. It’s also a form of discrimination that may perpetuate racial segregation in the city.
“If you have a policy that says you don’t accept vouchers, that’s going to have a disproportionate impact based on race, because the makeup of the program in D.C. is overwhelmingly African-American,” says Scott, who oversees the nonprofit’s fair housing program.
In 2017, the Equal Rights Center sued D.C. property manager The Lenkin Co. after it found that the company illegally turned away voucher holders. The company settled the suit for $125,000 and agreed to train its employees on fair housing law.
Source-of-income discrimination is also banned in Montgomery County, Frederick County and the City of Frederick.
Discrimination By Algorithm
Technology has replaced face-to-face interactions between housing providers and potential tenants, concealing the most blatant signs of discrimination.
It’s illegal to post discriminatory housing listings on Craigslist — a fact the classified ads company has tried to reinforce by publishing Fair Housing Act notices on its website — but social-media algorithms are different story.
In two reports from 2016 and 2017, news organization ProPublica found that Facebook allows advertisers to exclude ads from certain racial groups. The practice prompted the National Fair Housing Alliance to file a lawsuit against Facebook in a New York City federal court in March.
It’s hard to measure the impact of discriminatory housing ads on local residents. People who are looking for housing don’t know when they’re not seeing housing ads that others can see. “Those are hidden ways that discrimination occurs that people don’t recognize, so the number of cases are severely underreported,” Rice says.
Where Discrimination Remains Legal
There are still places in the Washington region where some individuals have little recourse against housing discrimination. In Virginia, LGBT residents are not a protected class; discriminating against people based on their sexuality or gender identity is effectively legal. Some jurisdictions, including Arlington County and the city of Alexandria, have ordinances that treat sexuality as a protected trait. But those ordinances are unenforceable because the state’s general assembly has ultimate authority over local laws. (It’s called the Dillon Rule.)
This is deeply frustrating for James Parrish, director of the civil rights group Equality Virginia.
“We’ve received calls over the years [from] people who clearly feel they’ve been denied housing or not renewed housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Parrish says. “One of the more frustrating pieces of my job [is] when I have to unfortunately let those people know that that’s currently not against the law.”
Equality Virginia reached a milestone in January, when the state senate passed a bill that would add LGBT protections to the state’s fair housing law, but the initiative later failed in the House of Delegates.
Parrish isn’t sure how many LBGT Virginians have been denied housing based on their sexuality or gender identity, but he says the lack of protection has a potentially massive impact.
“We’re looking at 200,000 to 250,000 LGBT [residents],” Parrish says. “We have a long ways to go to create a fully inclusive commonwealth for lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender Virginians.”
Lisa Rice with the National Fair Housing Alliance says truly open housing is attainable in the Washington region, but it requires a real commitment from local government, in particular.
“I think the greatest threat to fair housing is the lack of enforcement,” she says.
In a sharply worded letter to D.C. officials in 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said the District appeared to recognize its shortcomings in fair housing, but failed to meaningfully address them. The department recommended that the city actively invest in affordable housing, particularly in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods, and stop granting developers so many exceptions to the city’s inclusionary zoning program.
“The District of Columbia is rich enough that we can do a better job,” Rice says.
Meanwhile, government agencies and nonprofits across the Washington region have encouraged residents to understand their rights to fair housing. Groups like HOME — Housing Opportunities Made Equal in Virginia — distribute information about fair housing laws.
Advocates say that when residents report cases of housing discrimination, it helps nonprofits and government agencies understand how deep the problem still is in the D.C. area. Kate Scott with the Equal Rights Center says civil rights testing, which the center emphasizes, is one of the most powerful ways to uncover discrimination hiding in plain sight.
“Unless you have the comparative experience,” Scott says, “you’re not going to be able to see there’s discrimination happening.”