As a housing counselor for Bishop Sheen Ecumenical Housing Foundation Inc., Deborah Harris often gets phone calls from people with questions on a wide variety of housing-related issues. Some of those people call Harris because they think they’ve been discriminated against when they were trying to rent or buy a place to live.
“A family calls and says, ‘I seem to have this issue with our landlord,’ or with the lender. We react to it,” Harris said.
Harris said she usually reacts by asking for more information so she can determine whether a person was discriminated against. If this seems likely, Harris will then tell the person how to best remedy the situation, which often means referring them to the Fair Housing Enforcement Project.
The Fair Housing Enforcement Project is a joint project of Monroe County Legal Assistance Center and Legal Assistance of Western New York and is funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was founded in 1998 to reduce the amount of illegal housing discrimination in the region and increase compliance with the federal Fair Housing Act, according to Valencia Metcalf, the project’s communications coordinator.
The Fair Housing Act was passed by Congress in 1968 and amended in 1988, and it prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of one’s race, color, national origin, familial status, disability, religion and gender, Metcalf said. Fair Housing Enforcement Project staff members look into complaints about possible discrimination, and if they determine the complaints are founded, staff attorneys will file those cases in federal court.
“We investigate, we evaluate and we litigate. We enforce it, so we actually file the cases and do the litigation. Most of our cases are settled,” Metcalf said, noting the project has garnered nearly $1 million for its clients since 1998.
Landlords are discriminating against potential tenants if they falsely deny that housing is available to or if they refuse to sell or rent housing to people in the protected classes. Landlords also are guilty of discrimination if they set different terms or conditions for sale or rental for people in those protected classes, steer those people to other housing opportunities or provide different services or facilities for them, Metcalf said.
Landlords are not the only people who can be guilty of housing discrimination, however. Anyone who stands in the way of fair housing is guilty, such as a neighbor or tenant who threatens a landlord who is considering renting to a minority, Metcalf added.
The Fair Housing Enforcement Project usually investigates claims by sending its agents, or testers, to the landlord or seller in question to see how that landlord or seller treats them. Testers of different races, colors, national origins, genders, religions, familial statuses and disabilities can be sent to determine whether the landlord or seller is discriminating against certain groups, Metcalf said.
“Usually people don’t really have full evidence when they come to us. They just have a feeling,” she said.
Potential tenants and buyers sometimes don’t report discrimination because they’re more concerned with finding a place to live than they are with justice, Metcalf noted. These people move on to other places where they’ll be welcomed and accepted, she said, but they don’t realize that by allowing this discrimination to go unchecked they are perpetuating a vicious cycle that might one day affect their children.
People who feel discriminated against don’t have to bear the burden of proving this discrimination by themselves, however.
“It’s not your job to play detective,” Metcalf said. “If you feel that you’ve been discriminated against, call us and we’ll help you.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the Fair Housing Enforcement Project, call 585/325-2500 or TTY 585/325-2547.