Fifteen years ago a then-next-door-neighbor of mine told me he intended to put his house on the market, but he wanted to assure me that he would make sure no one in a certain racial group, which he clearly identified with a derogatory epithet, would move into our neighborhood. I was so stunned by his remark and the casual, but kind of whispery tone in which he delivered it, that I kept silent even though I should have told him I was offended by what he had said. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t speak up.
Discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status or disability in the sale or rental of housing is illegal throughout the United States. And yet it still goes on even though victims shouldn’t have to suffer from it.
Most prejudices die hard, but housing discrimination has been particularly difficult to end because it was so deeply imbedded in the way housing was sold and rented in the nation prior to the 1960s. Consider that in 1937 a district director of the new Federal Housing Administration urged defeat of proposed legislation in one state that he believed “would destroy all race restrictions on real estate,” according to an account published at the time. The FHA official warned that if the legislation passed, the FHA would “undoubtedly reject many loans which (it is) now insuring in the belief that the property is protected by thorough race restrictions.”
Realtor boards don’t have a perfect record on fair housing either, although they deserve credit for their efforts since the 1960s to educate their members about fair housing laws and regulations. Realtors are in a prime position not only to uphold the laws, but also to support the spirit of fair housing in the neighborhoods where they work and live. And that includes speaking up plainly and emphatically when they witness or suspect illegal practices in the sale or rental of housing.
The good news is that housing discrimination is no longer institutionalized, and those who practice it face a real risk of prosecution for federal crime. The U.S. Department of Housing in recent months has taken strong and commendable actions against alleged housing discrimination scofflaws.
The federal housing agency in November announced that it settled an investigation into a developer’s alleged discrimination against families with children, charged a leasing agent and apartment building owner with a violation of the Fair Housing Act because they allegedly refused to rent an apartment to a prospective tenant on the basis of his race, and charged a real estate broker and her son with a violation of the same law because they allegedly refused to sell a home to a particular couple on the basis of their race. Those cases are just three instances of HUD’s fair housing enforcement efforts.
Out-dated and erroneous beliefs and attitudes about others still color too many people’s thinking, and subtle hints that certain folks might be less desirable as neighbors than others still permeate too many neighborhoods. Better enforcement of the tough laws on the books is all for the good, but what’s really needed is more people who speak out when illegal discrimination in housing is suggested or practiced.
Housing discrimination isn’t a victimless crime. It diminishes people’s opportunities and choices, and it sends them a message that they’re disliked or even hated for no reason other than their personal characteristics. Discrimination hurts.
And such hurts can endure. My 96-year-old grandmother still remembers the day seven decades ago when a landlord told her and her new husband they wouldn’t be allowed to rent an apartment they wanted because of their religion. And she still sounds surprised and hurt when she repeats that story. At the time, such discrimination was legal. But today it isn’t. It was never right, and it shouldn’t be socially acceptable to nod knowingly, turn a blind eye and remain silence about it.
I’ve spoken out against housing discrimination since that day when I was silent 15 years ago, and I’ll do so again. Will you?
To file a fair housing complaint, call HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at (800) 669-9777.
Marcie Geffner is a real estate reporter in Los Angeles.
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