Americans are so used to discrimination that many people rationalize it away these days, saying “Well, Latinos want to live with other Latinos and Blacks want to live with Blacks.”
“We’ve lived with it for so long, we don’t even think it’s wrong anymore,” said Andrew Cuomo. “We have to start to say we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Cuomo, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is the founder of HELP USA (Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged), which in April started the Fair Housing Justice Center to address housing discrimination. He was one of the speakers at a recent symposium on fair housing.
It doesn’t take a symposium to make clear that housing discrimination is rife throughout the United States. And despite its reputation as the progressive center of the country, New York City abounds in examples: An apartment ad on the popular Craig’s List web site stated that families with children need not apply. The city has more than two million units of housing inaccessible to people with disabilities, according to a city study.
Those looking for the scarce good news when it comes to housing discrimination can point to the city’s human rights law, which affords protection against discrimination to more classes of people than the state or federal governments. But, out of earshot of their bosses, some workers at the agency primarily charged with enforcing that law, the city’s Commission on Human Rights, readily admit that the complaint-driven enforcement mechanism is ineffective. Most people simply do not complain about discrimination, and there is no aggressive testing to root out violators.
“New York City is more segregated in 2000 than it was in 1910,” said Craig Gurian, the executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York. An interactive map showing racial concentration in the city over the years proved his point. “Racial segregation just keeps growing and growing. We have to admit that we haven’t been very successful in fighting this problem.”
At the symposium on fair housing, a variety of speakers addressed four specific areas where discrimination in housing is particularly glaring:
- predatory lending schemes that target Latinos, African Americans and other people of color
- women who are victims of domestic violence denied housing because of the potential for violence in their households
- immigrants denied housing for, among other things, complaining about conditions in their apartments
- and, persons with disabilities effectively denied housing when landlords refuse to make reasonable accommodations.
Despite the severity of the problem, few agencies are doing much about it. Though HELP’s Fair Housing Justice Center opened recently, with financial support from HUD, this comes two years after the closing of the Open Housing Center, a focused and citywide independent effort to enforce city, state and federal human rights laws.
The city’s efforts amount to little more than telling people that discrimination is against the law. Even that it does not do very well, unless you consider pretty posters effective.
Predatory Lending Schemes
There is a new, almost pathological twist on the traditional discrimination against African Americans and other people of color. Once unable to obtain loans to buy houses or “redlined” out of certain areas by banks and other loan-making institutions, people of color are now actually targeted by such institutions for lending, called predatory lending because of how its practitioners prey upon vulnerable people.
“The vast majority of people being targeted for predatory lending are people of color,” said Josh Zinner, founder and coordinator of the Foreclosure Prevention Project at South Brooklyn Legal Services. “This is very much a racial issue.”
A map Zinner provided made the point convincingly. When sites of predatory lending were overlaid on a demographic map of the city, it was painfully obvious that predatory lenders are targeting people in neighborhoods where people of color predominantly live.
Predatory lending occurs in three general categories, Zinner explained: When people refinance loans on homes they already own; when people purchase homes or “flip” property â€“ buy it and sell it quickly; and, when people are in foreclosure proceedings and lending institutions show up to “save” them by refinancing their mortgages.
In some cases, the victims of these practices end up taking on loans that are completely unaffordable and wind up losing their homes; in others, they sign over the deed to their homes and lose them.
“It’s such an emergency situation that there are bills in Albany to address it,” Zinner said. But he urged people to oppose a bill in Congress, the Responsible Lending Act, also known as the Predatory Lending Protection Act, which would eliminate protections for consumers considering mortgages. That law would supercede state laws for institutions with federal charters.
Victims Of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness, according to statistics from the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. In New York City, as many as a quarter of all homeless parents were homeless as a direct result of domestic violence in 2002, according to a study by the Institute for Children and Poverty.
“Landlords are holding the tenants responsible for the violence in their apartments,” said Emily Martin, the project’s staff attorney “In public housing, if the police come to the home, it’s seen as a disturbance that the tenant caused.” In other cases, she said, domestic violence victims’ applications for apartments are rejected because of the potential for future violence.
One answer is litigation, Martin said, and she pointed to a case in Vermont where her team successfully used the federal Fair Housing Act to compel a landlord to drop an eviction proceeding against a woman who had been battered. The landlord’s claim that the woman was partly responsible for the violence reflected a gender stereotype of domestic violence victims, and the law holds that such stereotypes are discriminatory.
The discrimination that disabled people face in housing varies depending on their disability. The city’s human rights law has been effectively put to use to force landlords to make apartments accessible for people with disabilities. While the federal Fair Housing Act says tenants have a right to accessible housing, it places the burden of paying for accommodations on tenants. The city’s law, on the other hand, places that burden on landlords, as long as this does not create an “undue hardship.”
“Ignorance around disability laws is amazing,” said Ted Finkelstein of the Commission on Human Rights and coordinator of its Project Equal Access. The project educates people on the law and makes landlords make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities: install ramps, free up parking spaces, and install lighter windows, for example.
Convincing landlords to make those improvements is rarely easy, he said.
“Owners go through a litany of reasons for why they cannot make reasonable accommodations.”
The discrimination immigrants face is probably significantly under-reported, or rather, even more under-reported than other types of discrimination. I have written previously about the problems immigrants face. At the symposium, Alfred Placeres, an attorney who specializes in immigration law, highlighted some consequences -- overcrowding and illegal sublets -- while emphasizing that helping people resolving their immigration issues was an important way to help them.
Landlords can refuse to rent to illegal immigrants and avoid a discrimination complaint by saying that they did so because the immigrants have no verifiable income, no credit history, no tax returns and no social security numbers, he said.
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â