• Abby MacPhail

Housing Discrimination: A Slammed Door to a Revolving Door

by Elizabeth Roytberg

"Today in New York City, even though as you go down the streets of Manhattan, you’ll see one of the most diverse places in the world; you hear people speaking different languages, people of all races and national origins. But the reality is that when people go home at night in New York City, they largely go home to segregated neighborhoods, with few exceptions,” said Fred Freiberg, the executive director and co-founder of the Fair Housing Justice Center.

The Fair Housing Justice Center, located in Long Island City, New York is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to “eliminating housing discrimination, promoting policies that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities, and strengthening enforcement of fair housing laws”.

New York City is the third most segregated area for African Americans in the United States and the second most segregated city for Asian Americans and Latinos.

Segregation in New York City neighborhoods today is the direct outcome of racist practices like redlining. Redlining was an act carried out by the government in the 1930s which entailed denying someone a housing loan or insurance because they lived in an area deemed to be a financial risk. On redlining maps, there were four zones: green (best), blue (still desirable), yellow (definitely declining), and red (hazardous). Although the practice was officially banned fifty years ago, its legacy is present today through significant education, health, and housing disparities across neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods like Morrisania and Crotona in the Bronx, which were both red on maps, and Tottenville and Great Kills on Staten Island, which were both yellow on maps, show the correlation between race and poverty. According to the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau, Morrisania and Crotona have the second highest non-white population (99%) in all of the city, and Tottenville and Great Kills has the smallest non-white population (15%) in all of the city. Comparatively, Morrisania and Crotona have the highest rate of poverty in New York City (44%), and Tottenville and Great Kills have the lowest rate of poverty in New York City (6%). Here, poverty is measured by the percentage of individuals living below the federal poverty level, which in 2016 was below $32,404 for a family of four.

While Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes housing as a human right, housing has historically been denied on the basis of race, religion, sex, nationality and other identifiers. But the discrimination some face may not be easily detected. Fair housing laws are a part of the Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Federal Fair Housing Act.

These laws prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability for sale, rental, or any other housing-related business. The New York State Human Rights Law provides additional protection against discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, military status, and faith. Local governments often provide their residents with added security. For example, the New York City Human Rights Law forbids housing discrimination based on gender identity, lawful occupation, immigration and alienage status, and source of income.

Through its Acting for Justice Program, the Fair Housing Justice Center aims to ensure compliance with housing laws. Within this program, professional testers, who are of different sex, race, religion, colour, or any other trait that is protected from discrimination in the fair housing laws, assume the role of house hunters and observe the practices of housing providers and landlords to “to identify, document, and eliminate systemic housing discrimination."

"About 30 to 40 percent of the time, I had racial remarks made to me about the person I was matching with, by a housing provider,” Freiberg described the experience of an African American female tester. “... I was treated poorly. I was getting the runaround, nothing was offered to me, and I think that in that test, in particular, I was shown something but I was given a higher price. My white tester was treated totally different, so nice.”

"Offers are given [to the white testers] to change carpets and appliances, this, that, and whatever else. I am not offered that,” the tester said.

Once discrimination is detected, the Center files a lawsuit on behalf of the home seeker. Since its creation, they have filed numerous lawsuits, winning a majority. The plaintiffs are often awarded monetary compensation, and in some cases, more. In the case of an African American woman who applied, but failed to receive an apartment across the street from her elderly father, she received a large amount of money and three years of free rent as compensation.

While discrimination was once an outright practice, today its subtlety might go unnoticed by house hunters. “You have to think about discrimination as being not so much a slammed door, but a revolving door, where people are politely and courteously escorted in, out of, and away from housing that they are seeking,” said Freiberg.Many times action is not taken by prospective tenants to ensure their discrimination ends. However, organizations such as the Fair Housing Justice Center continue to advocate for fair housing practices and on behalf of victims of housing discrimination.

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