Housing bias complaints rise
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By Deborah Barfield Berry and Robert Benincasa
Gannett News Service
By Deborah Barfield Berry and Robert Benincasa
WASHINGTON — Nearly 40 years after a national law banned housing discrimination, an increasing number of complaints are alleging unfair treatment of minorities, the disabled, families and other groups.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development and housing assistance agencies logged 10,328 complaints last year, a 12 percent jump from 2005. That's the highest number since HUD started keeping track in 1990, when it included complaints from the disabled and families with children.
"Some people want to say these are things that happened in the old days," said Kim Kendrick, assistant secretary for HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. "It doesn't happen in the old days. It happens today."
A Gannett News Service analysis of 44,000 housing discrimination complaints filed between 2002 and 2006 with HUD and its contract agencies shows allegations of unfair treatment are widely dispersed across the nation.
In St. Louis, a mother complained a landlord told her he wouldn't rent to families with pets or children.
In Worcester, Mass., a man with kidney disease said a landlord refused to rent to him because his disability was "too much baggage."
In San Jose, Calif., Hispanic families complained their apartment manager spoke disparagingly of Mexicans and gave their repair requests lower priority.
In Chesterfield, Va., a black woman said a white property owner told her the house she was interested in "will not be sold to coloreds."
"It was like he had just punched me," said Nealie Pitts, 59, whose eyes still fill with tears when she talks about the 2002 incident.
Between 2002 and 2006, seven states and the District of Columbia averaged more than 10 housing discrimination complaints per 100,000 housing units, according to the GNS analysis. The average state rate was 7.6 complaints per 100,000 units.
HAWAI'I RANKS NO. 6
The highest was Nebraska with 17, followed by Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, Hawai'i and Wyoming. According to officials in some of those states, the reasons range from aggressive work by fair housing groups to longstanding racial tensions to an influx of immigrants.
Nebraska has a history of racial divisiveness and now faces a growing immigrant population, according to housing officials and lawmakers there.
"These things are part of the reality of the community we're in," said Gary Fischer, general counsel for Family Housing Advisory Services Inc. in Omaha. "They didn't get that way overnight. I do not think Nebraska is unique. That's the fabric here, but that's the fabric in many places."
States with the lowest average complaint rates were Alaska, Minnesota, West Virginia and Wisconsin. All had fewer than four complaints per 100,000 units.
The 1968 Fair Housing Act, amended in 1988, bans discrimination in the housing market based on disability, race, sex, national origin, religion, skin color or whether a family has children. The law covers rentals, purchases and financing.
Reasons for the growing number of discrimination complaints vary, housing officials say. Some areas are dealing with new waves of immigrants. Others have old houses that aren't readily accessible to the disabled.
Last year's record number of complaints also could result from stepped-up enforcement and efforts by HUD and other agencies to make people aware of their rights, housing officials say.
But critics of HUD say the agency is too slow to investigate complaints. And they note federal housing officials filed a civil discrimination charge in only 1 percent of the complaints they received last year.
HUD officials say the law requires them to work with both parties in a case to try to reach a settlement. Last year, 36 percent of the complaints to HUD were settled.
Federal officials and fair housing advocates say it's difficult to know whether housing discrimination is on the rise in a particular area. But they agree the problem is more pervasive than the number of complaints suggests.
Many victims believe filing a complaint isn't worth the trouble or don't know where to go, government studies show. And although the Fair Housing Act protects illegal immigrants, they're unlikely to complain for fear of being deported, civil rights groups say.
Private housing groups also get complaints that aren't included in the data.
The GNS analysis also found that:
Nationally, disability-related cases accounted for 40 percent of complaints filed with HUD and its contract agencies last year. Race-related complaints accounted for 39 percent.
Housing experts expect disability complaints to climb as the nation's population ages and older Americans better understand their housing rights.
Peter Raimondi, a 79-year-old polio victim who uses crutches, filed a housing discrimination complaint four years ago after his condominium board in Bel Air, Md., refused to let him install a curb cut and ramp near his condo.
A judge recently sided with Raimondi. The case is on appeal.
"I don't think people do it out of malice," Raimondi said of discrimination against the disabled. "I think they don't know."
Even when complaints are filed, proving them can be difficult. Last year, HUD dismissed 40 percent of complaints, citing lack of evidence. One reason may be that housing discrimination today can be subtler.
"The days are gone when people say, 'We don't rent to you people,' " said John Simonson, who in 1977 led the first national study on racial discrimination in housing. "In rentals they treat you nicely. They just don't give you the unit."
Still, some housing advocates say federal officials aren't doing enough to deter homeowners, real estate agents, landlords and others from breaking the law.
HUD must investigate discrimination complaints within 100 days. But a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found the agency missed that deadline in more than a third of cases.
HUD officials say they have boosted training to improve response time.
In addition, the agency has launched 15 high-profile investigations in the last two years, including two in Louisiana linked to events after Hurricane Katrina.
After the 2005 hurricane, New Orleans officials complained to HUD about Web sites that were offering emergency housing for "whites only."
"We all thought that kind of issue was over with," said James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "It means we have a lot more work to do."
Contact Deborah Barfield Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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