Housing will test white support for Black lives – The Boston Globe

As a young housing activist about a decade ago, Jesse Kanson-Benanav started to notice that many liberal residents of Cambridge were hostile to integration. Whenever a developer proposed a few units of affordable housing, white homeowners would line up in opposition, citing concerns about parking or residential “character.” Although they said they valued diversity, they worked tirelessly to thwart the developments that would actually make it more feasible for Black and brown families to move into their neighborhoods.

“It really struck me as out of step with the image that Cambridge purports as a progressive and welcoming community,” he said.

Kanson-Benanav, now the president of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, recently thought of those Boston-area liberals when a friend sent him a photo of a lawn in Newton with three yard signs. Two pushed back against affordable housing projects, reading: “Right Size Newton” and “Right Size Riverside.” The third sign said, “Black Lives Matter.”

Increasing the housing supply for Black Americans would be one of the quickest and most effective ways to bring about a more just society. Even now, the legacies of “red-lining” and other forms of segregation, predatory lending, and housing discrimination continue to push many Black Americans away from wealthier, better-schooled neighborhoods. But efforts to fix this problem by building affordable housing in suburban communities and affluent parts of cities have often been met with anger from white residents worried about “density” and “crowding.” White progressives in particular have a long history of refusing to integrate their communities, even as they vocally support civil rights movements.

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has record levels of support, large, even majority-white crowds have gathered in cities across America to call for the end of systemic racism and police brutality. To achieve real equity, though, white allies will have to move beyond symbolic displays of solidarity and actually help Black Americans get into their neighborhoods.

ONE OF OUR great societal myths is that Black and white neighborhoods are separate because Americans like to live alongside people with shared backgrounds or because poor and rich people pick the neighborhoods they can afford. The reality is that federal and local governments segregated communities through elaborate feats of social engineering.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the federal government created the suburbs by insuring home mortgages and offering subsidies to developers who mass produced single-family homes. As a result, suburban subdivisions began to sell at rates easily affordable to Black and white Americans alike. But the Federal Housing Administration incentivized developers to keep the suburbs white-only, refusing to grant loans unless there were physical barriers between people of different races, such as highways and, in at least one instance, an actual wall. Oftentimes, Black Americans were explicitly barred from suburban homeownership by leases that forbid renting or selling to “any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” The federal Public Works Administration even went so far as to purposely segregate previously integrated neighborhoods, building separate housing projects for Black and white families and listing each development’s racial designation. These programs concentrated Black Americans in poverty-stricken areas without easy access to jobs, health care, or transportation.

After the Supreme Court deemed segregation unconstitutional in a series of cases, white cities and suburbs fought to maintain the old layouts anyway, passing local zoning restrictions that served to prevent Black Americans from moving into their communities. Since the restrictions had to appear race-neutral to be legal, they relied on economic means to keep out Black Americans, who had not accumulated wealth at the same rate as whites because of segregationist housing programs. Zoning requirements typically enforced minimum lot sizes or forbid developers from building low-income housing in all-white neighborhoods, rendering homes in those communities unaffordable to Black buyers and renters. Many of these same ordinances continue to ensure that Black and white Americans remain separate and unequal.

The effects have been disastrous. Effectively barred from high-quality housing, Black Americans stayed renters, often in economically depressed areas, while white Americans gained hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity as their homes appreciated in value. As Richard Rothstein writes in his book “The Color of Law,” the modern wealth gap between Black and white households is entirely attributable to this difference. As of 2016, the median Black family had only 8.7 percent as much wealth as the median white family. In the greater Boston area, the median net worth of non-immigrant African American households was $8 in 2015, while the median net worth of white households was $247,500. Housing inequality has also limited educational opportunities for Black children by concentrating them in the same underfunded schools, contributed to mass incarceration and police brutality by ghettoizing Black Americans in over-surveilled neighborhoods, and even shortened Black life expectancies by placing Black people in polluted areas with poor access to medical care.

What this means is that there is an obvious contradiction between supporting social justice movements and trying to maintain the segregated system behind almost every modern racial disparity. “When you talk about preserving the character of a community that exists because of oftentimes intentional racist exclusion, you’re really perpetuating the white supremacy that post-World War II suburban expansion was built upon,” said Kanson-Benanav.

Opponents of new housing often say they're objecting to increased density and want to preserve the "right size" of their communities. But strict limits on the housing supply have the effect of furthering decades of segregation.
Opponents of new housing often say they’re objecting to increased density and want to preserve the “right size” of their communities. But strict limits on the housing supply have the effect of furthering decades of segregation.DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

But even in an era of heightened racial consciousness, efforts to undo exclusionary zoning or build low-income housing in white neighborhoods tend to trigger fierce backlashes. Adriane Musgrave, a former candidate for the Cambridge City Council, still remembers meeting a woman who talked enthusiastically about wanting to empower the Black community but quickly grew hostile at the mention of the Frost Terrace apartments, an affordable housing development under construction near Porter Square. The woman claimed that she was planning to leave the area once the apartments were built because they were going to “ruin the neighborhood” and “bring drugs and loud music.”

Musgrave had previously been booed, hissed, and berated for speaking in favor of public housing, but the encounter with the woman still shocked her. “I’m sure she thinks she’s super progressive,” Musgrave said. “But she didn’t want to live next to lower-income people of color.”

André Leroux, founder of the Great Neighborhoods Program, a network of advocates for affordable housing and zoning reform, believes that most white progressives are able to hold these contradictory stances because they simply lack historical knowledge. “I think a lot of people are not aware of the history of segregation and how our communities became segregated through housing and zoning policies and planning,” Leroux said. “People just assume that this is the way that it is.”

Another reason housing reform has failed to gain momentum is that white residents want the physical characteristics of their neighborhoods to remain the same. Many of them worry that new developments will ruin the qualities that attracted them to low-density areas in the first place: the wide open spaces, the greenery, the direct sunlight, the easy parking. It’s easy to understand why homeowners would want to hold onto these benefits, but the problem is that they are almost always maintained at the expense of other people who don’t have the privilege of choosing where and how they live. As Brookline Select Board Member Raul Fernandez put it, “All of those creature comforts are more important to [homeowners] than someone else’s ability to be able to afford to live in whatever condition that is.”

The irony is that the vast majority of affordable housing developments exist free of controversy after they get built. Most of them have little to no effect on crime rates and property values, and long-term residents eventually forget about the toxic political fights they generated. “After these drawn out battles, the lawsuits, the yelling, there’s not a peep about it,” Leroux said. “People just move on.”

HOUSING ACTIVISM IN the North was a prominent but lesser-known part of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s campaign for racial justice. In 1966, King held a march in Chicago to demand that the city allow Black residents to buy homes in all-white neighborhoods. As the protesters crossed Marquette Park, they encountered a white mob that pelted them with projectiles, one of which struck King in the head. He would later claim that he had never faced “mobs as hostile and as hate-filled” as in Chicago. He added: “Many whites who opposed open housing would deny that they are racists.”

Building off King’s legacy, Black Lives Matter has been trying to link affordable housing to racial equality for years with limited success. But as the movement gathers momentum, activists are hoping that real change is finally on the horizon. “I don’t think wealthy, educated white liberals can play ignorant any longer,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of Liveable Streets Alliance. “There’s just so much data.”

It’s not clear whether the recent protest movement has had any tangible effects on debates over whether to build more housing in the suburbs. Some activists, like Beyazmin Jimenez, a board member of Kanson-Benanav’s organization, Abundant Housing Massachusetts, told me that the current racial climate has been an “awakening” for many white homeowners. “They’re now asking questions like, ‘Educate me. What are the policies that have led to our city being so segregated?’” she said. As an example, Jimenez cited the town of Hamilton, Mass., previously a hotbed of anti-affordable housing sentiment, which began to hold conversations around fair housing after the George Floyd protests.

Others, however, said that they haven’t seen sufficient evidence that the surge of racial awareness among white Americans has carried over into housing policy. “I don’t think enough people have made the connection yet,” says Jarred Johnson, also a board member at Abundant Housing Massachusetts. Adriane Musgrave told me that she is “not optimistic at all” that newly enlightened white liberals will bring about meaningful reform on the issue.

Their main fear is that the white homeowners supporting Black Lives Matter will abandon the movement once it begins to make material demands on their neighborhoods — just as many white liberals abandoned King in the ’60s. Although many northerners supported King in his campaign to desegregate the South, they quickly grew antagonistic when he shifted his attention to the racist housing policies in their own communities. By the time of his assassination, he had grown increasingly unpopular with the white liberals who had once heralded his activism. “People with privilege are comfortable signing a statement, are comfortable calling someone else racist, but that’s different than the long hard work of transforming a policy,” said Thompson.

There have already been worrisome signs that history is repeating itself. In June, the CT Mirror reported, the residents of Weston, Conn., marched through the town in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, chanting slogans and raising placards. Weston’s elected officials urged the overwhelmingly white crowd to fight systemic racism and examine their personal biases. Eight days later, those same officials voted unanimously to adopt a housing plan promoting the development of two-acre single-family homes. The town’s median sale price of $668,000 seems unlikely to dip. Weston is only 1.4 percent Black.

More tests of this new civil rights movement will occur at the local and state levels as white liberals are once again called upon to integrate their communities. President Trump grasps this, which is why he’s been tweeting lately that “suburban dreams” are endangered by the prospect of more low-income housing coming to prosperous communities. Essentially, Trump is goading suburbanites to weigh their fear of affordable housing against their commitments to racial justice, and he’s betting that white people will fall back on standard operating procedure.

Indeed, without an obvious boogeyman like a murderous cop to condemn, white allies will have to ask themselves if they are truly willing to make the compromises necessary to alleviate racial injustice. This would entail the elimination of single-family zoning, a receptiveness to building affordable developments, and increased tenant protections for low-income residents. In practice, it would look like Minneapolis — which recently reformed its zoning code to allow taller buildings with more units in areas that previously contained only single-family homes — or Newton, which just voted to approve the affordable Northland development after a contentious and drawn-out debate.

Jarred Johnson, one of the activists with Abundant Housing Massachusetts, told me that increasing levels of support for policies like defunding the police have made him cautiously optimistic about the prospect of substantive housing reform. “I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of folks to change their minds,” he said. “I do think there’s a capacity for change. And hopefully when they have that light turned on them, they’ll respond in a positive way. I get it. It’s hard. Change is hard. But it’s essential.”

Noah Y. Kim is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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Source: Housing will test white support for Black lives – The Boston Globe

How Wealthy Towns Keep People With Housing Vouchers Out — ProPublica

This article was produced in partnership with The Connecticut Mirror, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.

Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.

Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.

Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.

He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.

“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.

“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.

Carter paused.

“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.

“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”

Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.

Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.

She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.

As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.

For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.

In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.

The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.

Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.

Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.

“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”

Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.

The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)

Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.

Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.

But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.

“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”

In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.

“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.

A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.

“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)

More: Source: How Wealthy Towns Keep People With Housing Vouchers Out — ProPublica

Against Black Homeownership | Boston Review II KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR


Against Black Homeownership

The real estate market is so structured by race that black families will never come out ahead.


Image: Flickr

In January 1973, George Romney, Nixon’s enigmatic Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, administered an open-ended moratorium on its 1968 initiatives to open up single-family homeownership to low-income borrowers by providing government-backed mortgages. The experiment to make homeownership accessible to everyone ended abruptly with massive foreclosures and abandoned houses, but the questions ignited by these policies persisted. Some analysts insisted that the failure of HUD’s homeownership programs was proof positive that poor people were ill equipped for the responsibilities of homeownership. African Americans experience homeownership in ways that rarely produce the financial benefits typically enjoyed by middle-class white Americans.And they insisted that it more specifically implicated low-income African Americans as “incapable” homeowners. Others pointed to HUD’s obvious mismanagement of these programs as the real culprit in their demise, and, importantly, how the programs gave an industry already known for its racial bias new opportunities to exploit low-income African-Americans. But the lessons from HUD’s experiment were muddled by other economic sensibilities, including the commitment to private property and the centrality of homeownership to the American economy.

Today, homeownership, even for low-income and poor people, is reflexively advised as a way to emerge from poverty, develop assets, and build wealth more generally. The historic levels of wealth inequality that continue to distinguish African Americans from whites are powerful reminders of how the exclusion of Blacks from this asset has generationally impaired Black families in comparison with their white peers. Owning a home as a way to build wealth is touted as an advantage over public or government-sponsored housing. It grounds the assumption that it is better to own than rent. And the greatest assumption of all is that homeownership is the superior way to live in the United States. This, of course, is tied to another indelible truth that homeownership is a central cog in the U.S. economy. Its pivotal role as an economic barometer and motor means that there are endless attempts to make it more accessible to ever-wider groups of people. While these are certainly statements of fact, they should not be confused as statements on the advisability of suturing economic well-being to a privately owned asset in a society where the value of that asset will be weighed by the race or ethnicity of whoever possesses it.

The assumption that a mere reversal of exclusion to inclusion would upend decades of institutional discrimination underestimated the investments in the economy organized around race and property. The concept of race and especially racial inferiority helped to establish the “economic floor” in the housing market. One’s proximity to African Americans individually, as well as to their communities, helped to determine the value of one’s property. This revealed another reality. Markets, as in the means by which the exchange of commodities is facilitated, do not exist in vacuums, nor do abstract notions of “supply and demand” dictate their function. Markets are conceived and constituted by desire, imagination, and social aspirations, among other malleable factors. This does not mean that markets are not real, but that they are not shaped by need alone. They are shaped by political, social, economic, and in the case of housing, racial concerns. And in the United States, these market conditions were shaped and stoked by economic actors that stood to gain by curtailing access to one portion of the market while then flooding another with credit, capital, and indiscriminate access to distressed and substandard homes.

HUD’s crisis in its homeownership programs in the 1970s reveal deeper and more systemic problems with the pursuit of homeownership as a way to improve the quality of one’s life. It is undeniable that homeownership in the United States has been “one of the important ways in which Americans have traditionally acquired financial capital” and that the “tax advantages, the accumulation of equity, and the increased value of real estate property enable homeowners to build economic assets. . . . These assets can be used to educate one’s children, to take advantage of business opportunities, to meet financial emergencies, and to provide for retirement.” Investment in homeownership, and its role in the process of the personal accumulation of capital, has been fundamental to the good life in the United States.

Full Article and Source: Against Black Homeownership | Boston Review

Trump’s Racism: An Oral History – The Atlantic

His racism and intolerance have always been in evidence; only slowly did he begin to understand how to use them to his advantage.


“The first quotation from Donald Trump ever to appear in The New York Times came on October 16, 1973. Trump was responding to charges filed by the Justice Department alleging racial bias at his family’s real-estate company. “They are absolutely ridiculous,” Trump said of the charges. “We have never discriminated, and we never would.”To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app.In the years since then, Trump has assembled a long record of comment on issues involving African Americans as well as Mexicans, Hispanics more broadly, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, women, and people with disabilities.

His statements have been reflected in his behavior—from public acts (placing ads calling for the execution of five young black and Latino men accused of rape, who were later shown to be innocent) to private preferences (“When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor,” a former employee of Trump’s Castle, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, told a writer for The New Yorker). Trump emerged as a political force owing to his full-throated embrace of “birtherism,” the false charge that the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was not born in the United States. His presidential campaign was fueled by nativist sentiment directed at nonwhite immigrants, and he proposed barring Muslims from entering the country.

In 2016, Trump described himself to The Washington Post as “the least racist person that you’ve ever encountered.”Instances of bigotry involving Donald Trump span more than four decades. The Atlantic interviewed a range of people with knowledge of several of those episodes. Their recollections have been edited for concision and clarity.”

Source: Trump’s Racism: An Oral History – The Atlantic

The Permanent Crisis of Housing | Jacobin

This essay is adapted from the introduction of In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, out now from Verso.

The symptoms of housing crisis are everywhere in evidence today. Households are being squeezed by the cost of living. Homelessness is on the rise. Evictions and foreclosures are commonplace. Segregation and poverty, along with displacement and unaffordability, have become the hallmarks of today’s cities. Urban and suburban neighborhoods are being transformed by speculative development, shaped by decisions made in boardrooms half a world away. Small towns and older industrial cities are struggling to survive.

In America, the housing crisis is especially acute in New York City. The city has more homeless residents now than at any time since the Great Depression. More than half of all households cannot afford the rent. Displacement, gentrification, and eviction are rampant. Two pillars of New York’s distinctive housing system — public housing and rent regulation — are both under threat.

But housing problems are not unique to New York. Shelter poverty is a problem throughout the United States. According to the standard measures of affordability, there is no US state where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford to rent or own a one-bedroom dwelling.

Nationwide, nearly half of all renting households spend anunsustainable amount of their income on rent, a figure that is only expected to rise. This is not only a big-city issue. Around 30 percent of rural households cannot afford their housing, including nearly half of all rural renters.

In fact, the housing crisis is global in scope. London, Shanghai, São Paulo, Mumbai, Lagos, indeed nearly every major city faces its own residential struggles. Land grabs, forced evictions, expulsions, and displacement are rampant. According to the United Nations, the homeless population across the planet may be anywhere between one hundred million and one billion people, depending on how homelessness is defined.

It has been estimated that globally there are currently 330 million households — more than a billion people — that are unable to find a decent or affordable home. Some research suggests that in recent decades, residential displacement due to development, extraction, and construction has occurred on a scale that rivals displacement caused by disasters and armed conflicts. In China and India alone in the past fifty years, an estimated one hundred million people have been displaced by development projects.

And yet if there is broad recognition of the existence of a housing crisis, there is no deep understanding of why it occurs, much less what to do about it. The dominant view today is that if the housing system is broken, it is a temporary crisis that can be resolved through targeted, isolated measures. In mainstream debates, housing tends to be understood in narrow terms.

The provision of adequate housing is seen as a technical problem and technocratic means are sought to solve it: better construction technology, smarter physical planning, new techniques for management, more homeownership, different zoning laws, and fewer land use regulations. Housing is seen as the domain of experts like developers, architects, or economists. Certainly, technical improvements in the housing system are possible, and some are much needed. But the crisis is deeper than that.

We see housing in a wider perspective: as a political-economic problem. The residential is political — which is to say that the shape of the housing system is always the outcome of struggles between different groups and classes. Housing necessarily raises questions about state action and the broader economic system. But the ways in which social antagonisms shape housing are too often obscured.

Housing is under attack today. It is caught within a number of simultaneous social conflicts. Most immediately, there is a conflict between housing as lived, social space and housing as an instrument for profit-making — a conflict between housing as home and as real estate. More broadly, housing is the subject of contestation between different ideologies, economic interests, and political projects. More broadly still, the housing crisis stems from the inequalities and antagonisms of class society.

Reposing the Housing Question

The classic statement on the political-economic aspects of housing was written by Friedrich Engels in 1872. At the time, few disputed the fact that housing conditions for the industrial proletariat were unbearable. What Engels called “the housing question” was the question of why working-class housing appeared in the condition as it did, and what should be done about it.

Engels was generally pessimistic about the prospects for housing struggles per se. Criticizing bourgeois attempts at housing reform, he argued that housing problems should be understood as some of “the numerous, smaller, secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production.”

He concluded, “As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution to the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers.” For Engels, housing struggles were derivative of class struggle. Housing problems, then, could only be addressed through social revolution.

We take from Engels the idea that the housing question is embedded within the structures of class society. Posing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means asking who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses. It means questioning the function of housing within globalized neoliberal capitalism.

However, residential struggles today are not simply derivative of other conflicts. Housing movements are significant political actors in their own right. The housing question may not be resolvable under capitalism. But the shape of the housing system can be acted upon, modified, and changed.

The social theorist Henri Lefebvre helps us understand the political role of housing and the potential for changing it. In his 1968 book The Right to the City, Lefebvre argued that industrial insurrection was not the only force for social transformation. An “urban strategy” for revolutionizing society was possible.

Given changes to the nature of work and of urban development, the industrial proletariat was no longer the only agent of revolutionary change, or even the predominant one. Lefebvre claimed that there was a new political subject: the city dweller. More generally, Lefebvre invokes the politics of “the inhabitant,” a category that includes any worker, in the broadest sense, seen from the perspective of everyday social and residential life.

Lefebvre is vague about what exactly the inhabitant as a political subject will accomplish with the urban revolution. But he does point to a different way of inhabiting. He imagines a future where social needs would not be subordinated to economic necessity, where disalienated dwelling space would be universally available, where both equality and difference would be the basic principles of social and political life.

Whether or not anything like Lefebvre’s urban revolution is on the horizon, we can use his ideas to understand a basic point: the politics of housing involve a bigger set of actors and interests than is recognized either by mainstream debates or by conventional political-economic analyses such as that offered by Engels.

In the orthodox account, the only conflicts that matter are those surrounding exploitation and value. But the ruling class also needs to solidify its rule, and preserving the ability to exploit is only one aspect of this. There are also political, social, and ideological imperatives that significantly affect residential conditions.

In the financialized global economy — which was only beginning to emerge when Lefebvre was writing — real estate has come to have new prominence in relation to industrial capital. Housing and urban development today are not secondary phenomena. Rather, they are becoming some of the main processes driving contemporary global capitalism.

If Lefebvre is right, housing is becoming an ever more important site for the reproduction of the system — a change that might open new strategic possibilities for housing movements to achieve social change.

Whose Crisis?

Critics, reformers, and activists have invoked the term “housing crisis” for more than a hundred years. The phrase once again became pervasive after the global economic meltdown of 2008. But we need to be careful with this usage of the concept of crisis.

The idea of crisis implies that inadequate or unaffordable housing is abnormal, a temporary departure from a well- functioning standard. But for working-class and poor communities, housing crisis is the norm. Insufficient housing has been the mark of dominated groups throughout history. Engels made exactly this point:

The so-called housing shortage, which plays such a great role in the press nowadays, does not consist in the fact that the working class generally lives in bad, overcrowded or unhealthy dwellings. This shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it.

For the oppressed, housing is always in crisis. The reappearance of the term “housing crisis” in headlines represents the experiences of middle-class homeowners and investors, who faced unexpected residential instability following the 2008 financial implosion.

The idea of a housing crisis is politically loaded. Though the concept of crisis has a long history in critical theory and radical practice, it can be deployed for other purposes. In the United States, the discourse of housing crisis is often used to condemn state “interference” in housing markets. In the United Kingdom, the crisis frame is invoked in support of granting new legal powers to developers in order to override local planning guidelines.

Discrete moments when housing crises become acute tend to be interpreted away as exceptions to a fundamentally sound system. But this is an ideological distortion. The experience of crisis in the residential sphere reflects and amplifies the broader tendencies towards insecurity in capitalist societies. Housing crisis is a predictable, consistent outcome of a basic characteristic of capitalist spatial development: housing is not produced and distributed for the purposes of dwelling for all; it is produced and distributed as a commodity to enrich the few. Housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down but of the system working as it is intended.

We should reject ideological versions of the concept of housing crisis. But the term is still useful. For those compelled to dwell in oppressive and alienating conditions, housing crisis is not empty rhetoric; it is daily reality. To millions of households, “crisis” describes precisely the chaos, fear, and disempowerment that they experience. The state of their housing is critical indeed.

Our objective, then, is not to argue for the resolution of some temporary crisis and return to the status quo. We use the concept of crisis to highlight the ways that the contemporary housing system is unsustainable by its very nature. We point to the crisis tendencies in housing under contemporary capitalism, in order to draw attention to the urgent but systemic character of these problems.

In Defense of Housing

We do not seek to defend the housing system as it currently stands, which is in many ways indefensible. What needs defending is the use of housing as home, not as real estate. We are interested in the defense of housing as a resource that should be available to all.

Housing means many things to different groups. It is home for its residents and the site of social reproduction. It is the largest economic burden for many, and for others a source of wealth, status, profit, or control. It means work for those who construct, manage, and maintain it; speculative profit for those buying and selling it; and income for those financing it. It is a source of tax revenue and a subject of tax expenditures for the state, and a key component of the structure and functioning of cities.

Our concern is squarely with those who reside in and use housing — the people for whom home provides use values rather than exchange value. From the perspective of those who inhabit it, housing unlocks a whole range of social, cultural, and political goods. It is a universal necessity of life, in some ways an extension of the human body. Without it, participation in most of social, political, and economic life is impossible.

Housing is more than shelter; it can provide personal safety and ontological security. While the domestic environment can be the site of oppression and injustice, it also has the potential to serve as a confirmation of one’s agency, cultural identity, individuality, and creative powers.

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has also long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. This capacity to spur the political imagination is part of housing’s social value as well.

Housing is the precondition both for work and for leisure. Controlling one’s housing is a way to control one’s labor as well as one’s free time, which is why struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy. More than any other item of consumption, housing structures the way that individuals interact with others, with communities, and with wider collectives. Where and how one lives decisively shapes the treatment one receives by the state and can facilitate relations with other citizens and with social movements.

No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics.

It is this side of housing — its lived, universally necessary, social dimension, and its identity as home — that needs defending. Our challenge as analysts, as residents, and as participants in housing struggles is to understand the causes and consequences of the multidimensional attack on housing. Our goal is to provide a critical understanding of the political-economic nature of housing, such that we may develop a greater sense of the actions needed to address housing’s crises today and in the future.

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Source: The Permanent Crisis of Housing | Jacobin

“45 Years Later: The Fair Housing Act” with James Perry – April 13, 2013 – 10 pm ET LIVE

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham

“45 Years Later: The Fair Housing Act”

 Guest: James H. Perry

Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC)

04-13 Perry2

April 13, 2013 10pm ET 



Jim PerryJames Perry is the Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC). Perry is a housing expert. He founded the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center in Mississippi when he was 26 years old. He led the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center through two of America’s greatest disasters-Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Under Perry’s leadership, the Center favorably settled an historic class action lawsuit resulting in compensation of more than $500 million for Katrina victims. Perry has testified before congress eight times and was a candidate in the 2010 New Orleans Mayoral election.

Perry serves on the Board of Directors of the National Fair Housing Alliance, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center and chairs the Louisiana Housing Alliance Board of Directors. He holds a Bachelors in political science from the University of New Orleans and a Juris Doctorate from the Loyola University School of Law.

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center is a private, non-profit civil rights organization established in the summer of 1995 to eradicate housing discrimination throughout the greater New Orleans area.

America’s poor and middle-class are mired in the fall out of a crumbling economic foundation. Housing discrimination in new forms contribute to the fall out causing massive homelessness, including children, veterans and elderly. A new and vicious kind of resilience to compassionate themes in our politics, lends a hand to this threat. Foreclosures which rise out of predatory lending and greed, plague the well-being of the Black and Brown working class. Housing discrimination has a new and more virulent strain. Join us tonight to take a look with James Perry.

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham

“Speaking Truth to Power and Ourselves”


Community Forum: http://www.ourcommonground-talk.ning.com/
Twitter: @JaniceOCG #TalkthatMatters
Web: http://www.wordpress.ourcommongroundtalk.com/

No Sting: Feds Won’t Go Undercover to Prove Housing Discrimination

No Sting: Feds Won’t Go Undercover to Prove Housing Discrimination

Claire Rembis, 33, holds her daughter Cora, 1, at their rental home in Warren, Mich., on Dec. 19, 2012. The family moved there after facing what the Department of Housing and Urban Development contends was illegal discrimination. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)

by Nikole Hannah-Jones
ProPublica, Dec. 20, 2012, 4:29 p.m.

The four-bedroom house advertised on Craigslist sounded like just what Claire Rembis and her husband had been looking for. It sat on two verdant acres with plenty of room for their seven home-schooled children to run and play. And the $850 monthly rent was much cheaper than the prices for other homes they’d looked at.

Rembis loaded her family into their Dodge van and drove the 80 miles from Dearborn to Hudson, Mich. After the landlord’s brother showed them the property, they called the landlord and told her they “loved it.”

Have you experienced discrimination under the Fair Housing Act?Share your story with us.

Three days later, Rembis got a call from the landlord saying she was dropping by to see how the family lived. It seemed strange, but Rembis really wanted the house, so she agreed. The landlord looked around, noted how tidy Rembis kept her home, and then asked to meet her children.

“I notice you are a woman of color,” the landlord said. “Are you concerned about living in that area?” Hudson is about 96 percent white, according to the U.S. Census. Rembis is biracial; her husband is white.

When Rembis replied she expected she and her children would have no problems, the landlord clarified her question. “No, no, no, not your children,” Rembis recalled her saying. “They are so beautiful, they are so fair.”

The landlord told Rembis she’d get back to her. A few days later Rembis received an email saying the family could not rent the house because there were issues with their credit and they had too many small children.

By then, Rembis had already contacted the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit, a non-profit group. The center arranged for black and white testers to ask to rent the house.

Four years later, Rembis still gets emotional when she talks about what the testers found. “This part is really hard,” she said, her voice breaking. “This part is really hard. The black family and the white family had the same income, the same credit history, and the black family had the least number of kids. They wouldn’t even let them see the house. They wouldn’t return their phone calls.”

The white family, the testing showed, was called back immediately and invited to see the house.


The Rembis family applied to rent this 3,000-square-foot house in Hudson, Mich., but was denied, according to HUD, because Claire Rembis is part black. (medinaacademy.com)The Rembis family applied to rent this 3,000-square-foot house in Hudson, Mich., but was denied, according to HUD, because Claire Rembis is part black. (medinaacademy.com)

What happened to the Rembis family isn’t an isolated instance of a landlord flouting the 1968 Fair Housing Act. It’s a rare case of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development actually investigating and filing formal charges. Today, federal authorities filed a complaint against the owners of the property and proposed to settle the case with a $12,500 fine to be paid to the Rembis family, according to a Justice Department official. The proposed settlement also calls for Paula and David French to undergo training in following the fair housing law. Attempts to reach the Frenchs’ attorney were unsuccessful. 

Few civil rights laws are more routinely defied than the ban on housing discrimination.

HUD studies have found that African Americans and Latinos are discriminated against in one of every five home-buying encounters and one in every four attempts to rent an apartment.

Only a scant few of these incidents ever come to the attention of authorities.

In 2010, HUD and the National Fair Housing Alliance, reported that HUD, state, local and private groups received about 29,000 complaints from people alleging discrimination for a wide variety of reasons — including race, familial status, disability and national origin. About two-thirds were handled by private attorneys and non-profits which settled cases and, in some instances, filed civil law suits.

The remaining 10,000 went to state, local and federal agencies which together filed only 700 formal charges of discrimination in 2010. That year HUD found reasonable cause to believe discrimination based on race or national origin occurred in just 11 cases. The Department of Justice filed 29 cases — the lowest number since 2003.

The pervasive, unaddressed discrimination in the housing market has far-reaching effects. It is a significant factor in maintaining a segregated America four decades afterCongress passed landmark legislation intended to integrate the nation’s communities. It means that African Americans and Latinos who can afford to move to better neighborhoods are systematically blocked from doing so. They and their families are thus deprived of opportunities — from access to grocery stores with fresh vegetables to adequate health care to top-flight schools.

The negligible number of housing discrimination cases arises largely from fundamental choices by federal agencies.

Instead of actively searching for landlords and agents who discriminate, federal officials open investigations only after complaints are filed. But most victims have no idea they’ve been discriminated against, which means they never demand an inquiry.

Experts say undercover testing is the most effective way to catch landlords and real estate agents who conceal their intentions behind smiling faces and seemingly open, friendly attitudes.

Indeed, the handful of people who, like Rembis, realize what happened and are upset enough to pursue complaints find it difficult to prove their cases without evidence gathered through such testing.

Yet the federal government almost never uses this technique. HUD, the chief enforcement agency of the Fair Housing Act, runs no testing program of its own. Instead, it outsources the work to a patchwork of about 100 small, poorly funded private fair housing groupssuch as the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

Nearly all focus on verifying individual complaints rather than systematically seeking out serial discriminators.

Civil rights advocates say it’s no surprise that the current policies have had little impact on breaking apart the nation’s segregated neighborhoods.

“It has been impossible to desegregate communities on a case-by-case basis,” said Leslie Proll, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Washington, D.C., office. “It’s as if we were trying to desegregate schools student by student. Nobody would think that would be an appropriate remedy.”


Claire Rembis, who home schools her nine children, leads them in an arts project as her husband Willie, 44, looks on from in front of the refrigerator. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)Claire Rembis, who home schools her nine children, leads them in an arts project as her husband Willie, 44, looks on from in front of the refrigerator. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)

HUD officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But a HUD spokesman released a statement saying the agency avoids conducting its own tests for racial bias so it can remain “neutral” when it receives complaints. 

“For many years, HUD has held the position that it should not conduct a national testing program itself to make certain that it conducts neutral and impartial investigations of complaints under the Fair Housing Act,” the statement said.

“Conducting its own testing program (on which complaints might be based) would compromise that objectivity…If HUD conducted its own testing, and then investigated cases based on that testing, HUD would be accused of losing that required neutrality.”

That view seems out of step with the law, according to advocates and many legal experts. When Congress amended the act in 1988, it gave HUD the authority to initiate housing investigations on its own and to file what the law describes as “Secretary Initiated Complaints.”

“Testing doesn’t assume facts; it is done to find out what the facts are. It is nothing more or less than an investigation,” said Elizabeth Julian, a former HUD assistant secretary who is now president of a non-profit fair housing group called the Inclusive Communities Project. HUD’s statement, she said, doesn’t explain “why they don’t do systemic testing that would lead to secretary initiated complaints.”

Fred Freiberg founded a national testing program at the Justice Department in 1991 to ferret out cases of discrimination. HUD’s position, he said, “is absurd.”

“So what they are saying is the Department of Justice is compromising its objectivity because it runs a testing program and brings cases based on that testing?” he asked. “Is an investigation of a drug dealer at an elementary school compromised when an agent goes undercover?”

The Short Arm of the Law

The Fair Housing Act was the last piece of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Passed in the tumultuous days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the long-stalled measure was intended to address the root causes of riots that had set aflame more than 100 cities. It called on the federal government to do everything possible to “affirmatively further” fair housing, and it outlawed discrimination in the sale and rental of homes and apartments.

The law was the first civil rights legislation to address practices commonplace in both the North and South.

Earlier bills, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, succeeded in ending Jim Crow-discrimination in polling places, buses, hotels, restaurants and employment.

But the Fair Housing Act, intended to strike at the heart of what the 1968 Kerner Commission called two disparate nations, one black and one white, has produced astoundingly limited results.

“It is the third leg of the civil rights movement,” said Brian Gilmore, director of Michigan State University’s Housing Clinic. “This is the one that has been the complete failure.”

The original draft of the bill gave HUD broad new powers, including the authority to hold hearings, impose fines, and order property owners to change their behavior. But to win support from Northern lawmakers who feared legislation that dealt with racial issues so close to home, its sponsors gutted the enforcement provisions. The law that ultimately passed was, as Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy later put it, “a toothless tiger.”

The agency could not initiate investigations and could only respond to complaints. It could not impose fines or even bar violators from continuing illegal practices. All HUD was permitted to do was organize meetings in which the parties would attempt to voluntarily resolve their differences.


Belle Rembis, 6, paints a Christmas present for a family member in Texas. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)Belle Rembis, 6, paints a Christmas present for a family member in Texas. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)

When landlords or real estate agents denied the charges, HUD had no choice but to close cases and inform those involved of their right to file a private lawsuit. But hardly anyone went to court partly because the law limited damages to $1,000 and did not provide for attorney’s fees. 

Just a few years after the law went into effect, Patricia Roberts Harris, HUD secretary under President Jimmy Carter, called filing complaints a “useless task.”

The law did give the Justice Department authority to prosecute cases in which investigators could establish large-scale “patterns and practice” of discriminatory behavior. But the agency assigned fewer than two dozen attorneys to enforce all the nation’s civil rights laws, not just the Fair Housing Act, and brought few housing cases.

Former Senator (and later Vice President) Walter Mondale, a Minnesota Democrat who co-authored the act, said in a recent interview that he and others had intended to address the law’s weaknesses in subsequent Congresses. But the nation’s willingness to address racial inequality quickly dissipated.

Republican Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election, relying in part on a“Southern strategy” that built a coalition of formerly Democratic Southerners and white Northern suburbanites with promises to roll back integration efforts. The Congresses elected in the years that followed had little appetite to revisit the housing law.

The result, Mondale said, was a law with a “ragged history” that did not accomplish its fundamental goals. The Fair Housing Act was “intended to change discrimination and patterns of racial separation,” he said. “It wasn’t designed to duck it; it was designed to deal with it.”

One arm of government did aggressively search for housing discrimination: the Department of Defense. The military had long played a leading role in the fight for integration, beginning with President Harry Truman’s 1948 Executive Order banning segregation in the armed forces. Military officials launched the nation’s first national testing program shortly after the housing act passed, when it started sending white soldiers to test whether landlords were discriminating against black soldiers seeking off-base housing.

The commercial consequences were potentially ruinous. When the Defense Department found a landlord was discriminating, it banned all military personnel — on pain of court martial — from signing a lease with that person.

In the civilian world, non-profit fair housing groups operating on shoestring budgets struggled to fill that role. They sent out testers to investigate claims and help victims bring civil suits. Often, they sued under the recently passed Fair Housing Act and the 1866 Civil Rights Act. The 1866 Act, along with granting black Americans the full rights of citizenship, barred racial discrimination and, unlike the Fair Housing Act, did not limit damages.

The non-profit groups scored some notable successes, revealing discriminatory practices in real estate, insurance and lending. Still, without the weight of the federal government, the impact was limited. Federal studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s show the rate of discrimination remained steady. Housing patterns stayed as segregated as before the housing act passed.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan responded to mounting criticism of his civil rights record by helping push through the Fair Housing Amendments Act. Signing the bill, Reagan declared that “discrimination is particularly tragic when it means a family is refused housing near good schools, a good job, or simply in a better neighborhood to raise children.”

The bill, he said, repaired a significant “defect”: Lack of enforcement. For the first time, it gave HUD authority to initiate systemic investigations of housing bias. Officials could haul landlords and real estate agents before administrative law judges who had the power to fine them up $50,000. It also lifted the $1,000 cap on civil damages and expanded the authority of the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate cases.

The U.S. Department of Justice swiftly took advantage of its new powers. In 1991, two years after the law went into effect, the department recruited Freiberg to launch its national testing program.

Freiberg sent investigators to dozens of cities with suspect racial patterns, leading to about 70 lawsuits against property owners in cities from Newark to Miami to Rapid City, S.D.

Freiberg left the Justice Department in 1999, and since then the department has brought an average of fewer than two cases a year. It is unclear exactly why the cases have declined as the DOJ did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

HUD never created a testing program. Instead, officials continued to wait for people to file complaints.

Would-be Broadway Stars Reveal Discrimination


Willie Rembis talks on the phone while holding his daughter Cora. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)Willie Rembis talks on the phone while holding his daughter Cora. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)

In the two decades it took for Congress to give HUD real authority to punish discrimination, America had changed. The overt racism of the ’60s, in which landlords often told black Americans they had no apartments for their kind, had given way to subtler forms of bias. 

“If you think about the old-fashioned discrimination as the door being slammed in somebody’s face, today you have to talk about a revolving door, where people are politely and courteously escorted in and out and ultimately away from the desired housing,” said Freiberg, now the executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, a non-profit enforcement group in New York City.

The best way to detect such practices today, experts and housing officials say, is to send actors of different races posing as renters and homebuyers.

But HUD opted to fund non-profits around the country to perform such tests and bring the majority of lawsuits involving housing discrimination. More than two decades later, these groups, which on average have just five staff members, process 65 percent of the nation’s fair housing complaints and account for nearly all of the fair housing testing conducted in the United States.

The Obama administration has significantly increased the money to fund these groups’ enforcement work. Still, HUD devotes far less than one one-thousandth of its budget to this effort. Out of its $43 billion in funding last year, the agency spent just $25 million on these contracts, and that sum is divided among 98 groups. The most any organization received last year was $325,000. The money covers staffing, legal expenses, complaint intake and investigation. Relatively little is spent on testing.

Meanwhile, large swaths of the country are not subject to any discrimination testing. No private fair housing groups operate in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Wyoming or South Carolina. In other parts of the country, such as Louisiana, just one housing group covers an entire state.

Officials at non-profit groups say most of the testing that is done is in response to complaints. Tight resources mean they do not work to bring to light previously unknown individuals or companies that systematically discriminate, but rather to build a case on behalf of people who say they were victimized and who want to file a case.

Freiberg said that approach is unlikely to detect the larger patterns of discrimination or catch serial, systemic perpetrators. At his organization, Freiberg begins his inquiries with sophisticated mapping software that identifies enclaves in New York City where the racial patterns of housing conflict with area demographics and income.

When he identifies a suspect neighborhood in what is the nation’s third most segregated city, Freiberg sends in teams of professional actors to work as testers.

Adrienne, an actor and director, joined the testing program in 2005. She didn’t expect the gig to last because she doubted they’d find much discrimination.

The 45-year-old black woman grew up on a Brooklyn block that, she said, evoked the multi-cultural ideals of Sesame Street. Her two best childhood friends were Jewish and Puerto Rican.

Freiberg agreed to allow Adrienne to describe her experiences as a tester as long as her full name was not published. She said her work has forever changed her view of a city she once viewed as a melting pot, and she remains particularly haunted by a case she investigated three years ago.

Freiberg had tapped Adrienne to test in an area of Queens he wanted to target because it was just 3 percent black. The borough, however, was 17 percent black and the entire city 27 percent black. Armed with a recording device, Adrienne headed to a leafy block in Astoria to ask about a renting an apartment in a well-maintained 72-unit building.

“Hi, my name is, Adrienne,” she told the super, offering her hand. “How are you?” he said, introducing himself as Louie.

Adrienne asked if any apartments were available. She needed something, she said, by the first of the month. In the recording, Louie Dodaj seemed regretful as he explained that the only open apartment had just been rented. He politely answered each of Adrienne’s questions, took her number and promised to call when something opened up.


Claire and Willie Rembis and their nine children live in close quarters in their rented home in Warren, Mich. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)Claire and Willie Rembis and their nine children live in close quarters in their rented home in Warren, Mich. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)

Adrienne remembers feeling certain that Dodaj was sincerely trying to help her, that he “would have totally put me in that apartment if he’d had one.” Less than 20 minutes later, a white actor asked Dodaj about renting an apartment. “Want to take a look?” he asked. 

Though the apartment had sat vacant for more than a month, it was the third time Louie had been caught on tape turning black testers away while just a few moments later welcoming white ones with similar backgrounds, credit and income.

With evidence from Adrienne and others, the Fair Housing Justice Center sued the property owner, Broadway Crescent Realty, for housing discrimination. In November 2011, the non-profit settled the case for $341,000 and the company’s promise to submit to monitoring and set up new procedures to insure that its 30 properties comply with the Fair Housing Act.

A representative at Broadway Crescent Realty said the company would not comment on the case. Dodaj’s attorney also declined to comment, and attempts to reach Dodaj were unsuccessful. The company and Dodaj denied wrongdoing in the settlement documents.

Adrienne said she’s disheartened by the experience of being politely denied housing again and again and can’t understand why the federal government is not doing more to root out a problem that seems so pervasive.

“I can’t change the color of my skin. I can’t change your opinion about that,” she said. “Someone has to have a way of finding out in order to help me fight it, because there wouldn’t have been a way for me to know on my own. That’s why it keeps happening, because there is no consequence.”

Over the past several years, Freiberg’s organization has brought cases in neighborhoods across New York City. It settled a suit with a Bronx apartment building and its real estate agent for steering away black buyers. It brought a case against a Brooklyn landlord who could not prove he had ever rented to an African American in 40 years. The center also reached a settlement in Brooklyn with a real estate company that had refused to serve black renters.

Testing was the crucial element in each of these cases, Freiberg said. It provided indisputable, tape-recorded evidence that housing professionals were turning away Adrienne and others of color while offering the same properties to white home seekers.

“I Would Forever Be in Court”

Most Americans who think they’ve experienced housing discrimination do nothing, according to research, because they doubt they can prove their cases or they lack faith that the federal government will enforce the law. A 2006 HUD study found that just one percent of the black Americans who believed they had faced housing discrimination filed a complaint.

Folayemi Agbede ended up among the 99 percent. As a junior at Northwestern University in 2007, she recalled, she was apartment hunting in a largely white neighborhood in nearby Chicago when she ran into a couple who said they’d just vacated an apartment. They told her the landlord had asked them to help recruit a new tenant. But when Agbede called the landlord’s office from the couple’s living room, a woman answering the phone tersely told her the unit was gone. No, she was told, she could not speak directly to the landlord.

Agbede remembers hanging up, sure that her race had cost her a place to live and burning with humiliation.

Here she was, she explained, educated, middle class, capable of paying the rent, but she couldn’t even get a foot in the door — literally.

Agbede considered filing a complaint but did not. Instead, she did what most people do when they have a tight deadline to find a place to live. She moved on.

“How can I indicate that I think someone lied to me on the phone, that I believe this person knew I was black, and they’ll take it seriously enough to investigate and invest their resources?” said Agbede, now a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C. “I was quite hurt, but I swallowed it.”

When Agbede moved there to earn her master’s degree, she chose to live in a mostly black neighborhood.


Willie Rembis watches his daughter Cinderella, 4, dance in the living room of their rental home in Warren, Mich. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)Willie Rembis watches his daughter Cinderella, 4, dance in the living room of their rental home in Warren, Mich. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)

Jesus Padilla reacted similarly after being turned away from a new subdivision being built in a small community nestled in Central California’s wine country. He’d seen the homes advertised in a local newspaper and was attracted to the good schools, golf course and ample parks and trails. 

But when he went to the sales office, he recalled, the saleswoman told him the builder had run out of money and canceled plans to build additional homes. No homes were available, she said. Not now, and not in the future.

“I just felt kind of cold, so I left,” he said. “It wasn’t, ‘Gee, I am sorry, we ran out of money.’ It was, ‘Get lost.’ I was feeling angry, but I thought, ‘If you don’t want my business, screw you.'”

Padilla, who was born in Mexico City and came to the U.S. when he was seven, said he had worked ceaselessly to speak English without an accent. A clinical psychologist, he said he could easily afford the mortgage. None of that mattered, he recalled, and it stung.

Over the coming months and years, Padilla, now 56, said he continued to see advertisements for the subdivision and watched as the construction continued apace. By then he’d bought another house, and though he thought about filing a complaint, he doubted it would make a difference.

“It’s a law that is extremely difficult to enforce because it is difficult to prove,” he said. “They might say maybe the lady didn’t like me because I was ugly. Filing a complaint really doesn’t matter.”

We invited readers who believed they’d experienced housing discrimination to tell us their stories. Several said they did not file complaints partly because discrimination is so commonplace. “If I reported every instance of discrimination I faced I would forever be in court or working with some third party,” wrote one reader. “I feel as though I have to pick and choose my battles.”

Opposition From Landlords

Agbede and Padilla were right to think they’d get little help from HUD. Even the people who file complaints can’t expect HUD to conduct or commission the testing often needed to prove their cases.

HUD’s own data shows that non-profits investigate just one-tenth of the cases brought to HUD and to local and state civil rights agencies. But these non-profits account for 85 percent of these agencies’ cases that include testing evidence. A 2012 HUD budget report said the “enforcement work and testing” by the groups “significantly strengthen complaints filed” and that cases assembled and brought to HUD by the non-profits are seven times more likely to result in a discrimination finding than complaints victims file directly with HUD and other government agencies.

Records show that government civil rights agencies dismiss far more claims than they settle or prosecute, typically for lack of evidence. Freiberg compares the government agencies’ reluctance to test to a law enforcement agency refusing to use fingerprints or DNA analysis.

“Testing takes away the doubt of what is happening,” explained Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “If you come to me and file a complaint, it is your word against the landlord’s. The testing introduces objective fact finders, and it either verifies what you told me as a complainant or it dismisses it.”

LaDonna Burns, an intake analyst at Freiberg’s Fair Housing Justice Center, said some people have resorted to trying to perform their own stings. They’ve sent white friends to confirm whether an apartment has really been taken, or they’ve made their own scratchy recordings of discriminatory comments.

Rep. Al Green, a Texas Democrat, has been trying to address the government’s lax enforcement of the housing law for five years. “I understand what invidious discrimination looks like, what it smells like. I understand how it hurts people, how it hurt families,” Green said in an interview.

In 2007, Green introduced the Housing Fairness Act which would require HUD to invest $20 million in a national program of systemic testing and discrimination research and would provide another $22 million to non-profit enforcement groups.

“In this, the greatest country in the world, is it something we can curtail? We have the tools to do it,” Green said. “The question boils down to: Do we have the will to do it?”


The Rembis family rents an 1100-square-foot, run-down bungalow in Warren, Mich., after being denied a much larger home in Hudson, Mich. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)The Rembis family rents an 1100-square-foot, run-down bungalow in Warren, Mich., after being denied a much larger home in Hudson, Mich. (Jeffrey Sauger for ProPublica)

The answer so far is no. 

The bill, which Green reintroduced in 2009 and in 2011, has failed to make it out of the House Financial Services Committee. He said he’ll introduce it again in the coming session.

HUD favors Green’s bill, with John Trasvina, HUD assistant secretary for fair housing, calling testing “an indispensable part of fair housing enforcement.”

But many landlords and realtors oppose it. The National Multi Housing Council and National Apartment Association, industry groups representing landlords, sent a representative to testify against the bill in 2010. “I am sure it will come as no surprise that the apartment industry does not exactly embrace additional testing as the best means to combat housing discrimination,” Jeanne Delgado, a vice president at the Multi Housing Council, told a hearing of the subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.

“There seems to be an underlying assumption that fair housing testing equals effective enforcement,” Delgado testified. “Increasing the number of tests just to increase the number of complaints is short-sighted and misses the goals of reducing discrimination.”

Calling testing programs outdated and unfair, she said the key to reducing housing bias is better education programs. The council declined interview requests.

Freiberg said HUD does not have to wait on Congress and could launch its own testing program by reallocating money from its existing budget. But Julian, the former HUD assistant secretary, said opposition to testing is a political reality and predicted Congress would block any HUD budget that included funds to carry out testing directly or commission more of a substantial amount of new testing.

As for Claire Rembis, she believes that without testing, HUD would have doubted her story. “There would have been. ‘Was she or wasn’t she, did she or didn’t she?'” she said.

Even though she is among the lucky few who proved their case to HUD, the discrimination scarred her. “I didn’t think it could happen to me. I figured we’re in Michigan, we are not in the South, and I am a human being,” Rembis said. “I would think you knowing who I am would be more important than who I look like.”

She has lived in white communities all of her life and said she never thought much about her race. But when her family last moved, she said she stayed home and let her husband house-hunt alone so that landlords wouldn’t get the chance to see her or her children.

The 3,000-square-foot Hudson home was remodeled and spacious with a sprawling wooded lawn. The Rembis family ended up in a run-down, 1,100-square-foot Warren, Mich., bungalow with peeling linoleum, squeezed between two other homes on narrow lot.

Tell us your story: We discovered the stories of Folayemi Agbede and Jesus Padilla by inviting readers to share their experiences around housing discrimination. Help us continue our investigation into fair housing by telling us about yours.