Opinion

Donald Sterling and Other Landlords Openly Discriminate Against Low-Income Renters

Gaping holes in the nation’s fair housing law and enforcement practices allow property owners to discriminate frequently and face no consequences.

Team owner Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers watches the San Antonio Spurs play against the Memphis Grizzlies during Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 19, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas.
National Journal
Hannah Emple
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Hannah Emple
May 22, 2014, 1:05 a.m.

Don­ald Ster­ling, own­er of the Los Angeles Clip­pers, has been all over the news lately. Maybe you’re sick of hear­ing about him, and you’ve wondered, “Why are we giv­ing him more air­time? And why is this all com­ing to a head now?”

As Kareem Ab­dul-Jab­bar and oth­ers have noted, des­pite ample evid­ence of ra­cist ideas and busi­ness prac­tices, only re­cently has Ster­ling been called out pub­licly. Ster­ling “was dis­crim­in­at­ing against black and His­pan­ic fam­il­ies for years, pre­vent­ing them from get­ting hous­ing. It was pub­lic re­cord. We did noth­ing,” Jabar wrote on Time.com. In­deed, Ster­ling’s be­ha­vi­or as a land­lord and prop­erty own­er has been con­sist­ently de­plor­able. But some of it has ac­tu­ally been leg­al.

Back in 2004, Ster­ling re­fused to ac­cept a ten­ant’s Sec­tion 8 vouch­er—a fed­er­al rent sub­sidy—as pay­ment and the court took his side. After wait­ing five years on a long wait­ing list of low-in­come fam­il­ies to re­ceive a Sec­tion 8 vouch­er, Ster­ling’s ten­ant, an eld­erly wid­ow named Elisheba Sabi, fi­nally got a vouch­er but wasn’t able to use it to man­age her rent.

How could this hap­pen?

Let’s start with the pro­gram in ques­tion: the Sec­tion 8 Hous­ing Choice Vouch­er Pro­gram (or “vouch­ers” for short) is de­signed to give eli­gible low-in­come house­holds that want to rent an op­por­tun­ity to find their own hous­ing in the private rent­al mar­ket and, the­or­et­ic­ally, a chance to es­cape neigh­bor­hoods of­ten hobbled by con­cen­trated poverty, high crime, and low-qual­ity schools. The house­hold is re­spons­ible for pay­ing rent (30 per­cent of their ad­jus­ted in­come) while the re­gion’s fed­er­al hous­ing au­thor­ity makes up the dif­fer­ence to the land­lord.

But the pro­gram re­quires land­lord co­oper­a­tion, and it can be com­plex for ten­ants and land­lords alike. Too of­ten vouch­er hold­ers run in­to prob­lems find­ing a land­lord who will ac­cept a vouch­er as pay­ment. If the search pro­cess drags on too long, the pro­spect­ive low-in­come renters can lose the vouch­er en­tirely. In most states, there’s no law against the dis­crim­in­a­tion that vouch­er hold­ers may face when try­ing to find suit­able hous­ing.

Blame a gap­ing hole in fed­er­al fair hous­ing law for the out­come of Sabi and Ster­ling’s case. Sec­tion 8 vouch­er hold­ers are not a pro­tec­ted group un­der the Fair Hous­ing Act. As a res­ult, land­lords in most states are free to turn down oth­er­wise qual­i­fied ten­ants simply be­cause they don’t want to rent to people with vouch­ers. The reas­ons why land­lords wouldn’t want to rent to vouch­er hold­ers are ad­mit­tedly com­plex, but the Na­tion­al Fair Hous­ing Al­li­ance and oth­er groups have iden­ti­fied dis­crim­in­a­tion as a ma­jor factor.

In fact, a Chica­go Area Fair Hous­ing Al­li­ance study re­leased this year used pair test­ing to find that land­lords who were already rent­ing to oth­er vouch­er hold­ers dis­crim­in­ated against pro­spect­ive ten­ants with vouch­ers in 59 per­cent of tests con­duc­ted. Pair tests are an ef­fect­ive way to as­sess dis­crim­in­a­tion be­cause they in­volve real-life in­ter­ac­tions with a land­lord: first, someone from a “neut­ral” group makes con­tact with a hous­ing pro­vider to doc­u­ment baseline treat­ment and the avail­ab­il­ity of a unit. Then, a mem­ber of a group fa­cing po­ten­tial dis­crim­in­a­tion fol­lows up in the same way to identi­fy any dis­crep­an­cies. In the Chica­go study, ex­amples of dis­crim­in­a­tion in­cluded prop­erty man­agers not re­turn­ing vouch­er hold­ers’ phone calls (but re­turn­ing calls from test­ers who did not have a vouch­er), present­ing dif­fer­ent or more lim­ited op­tions, and out­right re­fus­ing to rent to the vouch­er hold­ers.

The Sec­tion 8 leg­al loop­hole leaves low-in­come people in the pro­gram vul­ner­able to be­ing un­able to rent de­sir­able prop­er­ties in safe neigh­bor­hoods of their choos­ing with qual­ity schools. Nearly one-third of house­holds with a vouch­er in­clude a mem­ber with a dis­ab­il­ity, 19 per­cent are eld­erly, and half have chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies.

It’s clear—Sec­tion 8 vouch­er hold­ers need pro­tec­tion from fair hous­ing vi­ol­a­tions. Con­gress should move to ex­tend such pro­tec­tion. Oth­er­wise, Sec­tion 8 can not meet its pur­por­ted goals: to as­sist “very low-in­come fam­il­ies, the eld­erly, and the dis­abled to af­ford de­cent, safe, and san­it­ary hous­ing in the private mar­ket.”

However, pro­hib­it­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion against vouch­er hold­ers isn’t a cure-all. Why not? All we have to do is look to an­oth­er type of dis­crim­in­a­tion for evid­ence of how it con­tin­ues, des­pite clear laws for­bid­ding it.

Last year, the Urb­an In­sti­tute teamed up with the U.S. De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment (HUD) to con­duct 8,000 pair tests across the U.S. to eval­u­ate dis­crim­in­a­tion against black, Asi­an, and Latino renters and as­pir­ing home­buy­ers.

Re­search­ers found that while test­ers of col­or and white test­ers were equally likely to re­ceive an ap­point­ment to meet with a rent­al hous­ing pro­vider, the test­ers of col­or were told about few­er avail­able units and shown few­er units than their white coun­ter­parts with sim­il­ar in­comes, sav­ings, and cred­it scores.

Evid­ence from Chica­go also sug­gests that dis­crim­in­a­tion against vouch­er hold­ers of­ten hap­pens in con­junc­tion with oth­er forms of dis­crim­in­a­tion, ex­acer­bat­ing the prob­lem. Land­lords who already had ten­ants us­ing vouch­ers showed a bi­as against vouch­er hold­ers across the board — but it was even worse for black vouch­er hold­ers: “More than half (53 per­cent) of land­lords who told white test­ers that they ac­cep­ted vouch­ers dis­crim­in­ated against Afric­an Amer­ic­an test­ers who said they had vouch­ers.”

Amaz­ingly, Chica­go ac­tu­ally bans dis­crim­in­a­tion based on a renter’s source of in­come — in­clud­ing vouch­ers. Yet des­pite a loc­al law pro­hib­it­ing it, land­lords are get­ting away with wide­spread mis­treat­ment. These acts of dis­crim­in­a­tion — of­ten be­hind closed doors — are hard for the vic­tim to de­tect, even as they stifle op­por­tun­ity. People ex­per­i­en­cing a vi­ol­a­tion of fair hous­ing law in real life don’t have a point of ref­er­ence to which they may com­pare their ex­per­i­ence. Is bad treat­ment also un­equal treat­ment? It’s of­ten hard to say. A mem­ber of mul­tiple pro­tec­ted cat­egor­ies (say, a black fam­ily with a vouch­er) won’t know what promp­ted the dis­crim­in­a­tion. And just how would such a fam­ily know if a land­lord were be­ing dis­hon­est and dis­crim­in­at­ory if they claim that a pre­vi­ously avail­able unit has been ren­ted?

Even with a place to call home, renters with vouch­ers can still face dis­crim­in­a­tion. Elise Gold­in, a ten­ant or­gan­izer with the Urb­an Homestead­ing As­sist­ance Board in New York City, has come across “sneaky ways” that land­lords skirt the loc­al law ban­ning out­right dis­crim­in­a­tion against ten­ants with vouch­ers. (Full dis­clos­ure: Elise Gold­in and I are friends from col­lege.)

“When a new land­lord comes in after buy­ing a prop­erty and ex­ist­ing ten­ants don’t have up­dated leases, the land­lord is slow or re­luct­ant to give them a cur­rent lease, which messes people up on the pro­gram side,” Gold­in told me. “They can get kicked off Sec­tion 8, which means they won’t be able to af­ford the rent and may get evicted.”

Oth­er New York land­lords are se­lect­ively un­co­oper­at­ive. “They’re be­ing su­per at­tent­ive on the one side (such as tak­ing ten­ants to court) but not on the oth­er side with fil­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate Sec­tion 8 pa­per­work,” says Gold­in. In an­oth­er case, Gold­in re­ports that an eld­erly long-time res­id­ent in one build­ing con­tin­ues to pay her por­tion of the rent, “but the land­lord is just re­fus­ing to file the pa­per­work to ac­cept the Sec­tion 8 pay­ments.” That sounds a lot like what Ster­ling did to his ten­ant, Sabi — and he got away with it.

How can we stop this? In­clud­ing vouch­er hold­ers in fair hous­ing law is an over­due first step — but in­suf­fi­cient on its own. We also have to strengthen the re­per­cus­sions for land­lords, prop­erty man­age­ment com­pan­ies, and oth­er per­pet­rat­ors of hous­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion. While there are fin­an­cial pen­al­ties in place, reg­u­lat­ory bod­ies re­spons­ible for mon­it­or­ing com­pli­ance with the law are so weak that en­force­ment is not enough of a threat. Spend­ing on fair hous­ing rep­res­ents just 5 per­cent of HUD’s budget — and staff ded­ic­ated to fair hous­ing-re­lated activ­it­ies make up less than 7 per­cent of all HUD staff. In a ProP­ub­lica piece doc­u­ment­ing HUD’s piece­meal ef­forts and scant at­ten­tion to ad­dress­ing fair hous­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion, re­port­er Nikole Han­nah-Jones con­cludes that “pro­spects for sub­stan­tial change ap­pear dim.”

Des­pite grow­ing evid­ence of wide­spread hous­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion, it re­mains far too easy for land­lords to op­er­ate in a dis­crim­in­at­ory fash­ion. It’s even easi­er for people who aren’t per­son­ally af­fected to dis­miss the is­sue as a one-time en­counter with a big­oted, ill-in­ten­tioned per­son. But the real­ity is that it per­sists, with dev­ast­at­ing ef­fects in com­munit­ies across the U.S. in the form of di­min­ished op­por­tun­ity and af­fronts to in­di­vidu­als’ dig­nity.

Han­nah Emple is a policy ana­lyst with the As­set Build­ing Pro­gram at the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion. Her re­search fo­cuses on U.S. hous­ing policy, ra­cial wealth dis­par­it­ies, and strategies to im­prove pub­lic be­ne­fits pro­grams to pro­mote the fin­an­cial sta­bil­ity of low- and middle-in­come fam­il­ies.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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