City Council Holds Hearing on Housing Discrimination, Fair Housing Testing

The City Council Committee on Housing and Community Development, chaired by Councilor Lydia Edwards, held a virtual hearing on October 13 regarding housing discrimination. The hearing, which went on for more than five hours, covered three different dockets, including an “order for a hearing on establishing a municipal fair housing test program in the City of Boston,” an “order for a hearing regarding Section 8 Voucher discrimination,” and an “order for a hearing regarding discrimination in the metro Boston rental housing market.”

The hearing was split into three sections with three different sets of panelists that answered different questions. The first panel dealt with the current state of fair housing, the second looked at what discrimination looks like and consisted of agencies who give out vouchers, and the third panel discussed what can be done about the discrimination as far as policy solutions and testing for fair housing.

What Is the State of Fair Housing?

In the first panel, Professor William Berman from Suffolk University talked about a recent July study by the university that found that those who hold Section 8 vouchers in the Greater Boston area are not being provided the same opportunities by landlords and realtors as those who don’t.

“I can’t tell you how profoundly this kind of thing affects people,” Berman said. “The issue has been with us for the entire history of our country…It’s all of us; it’s our community and we have to change the culture so that kind of thing doesn’t happen.”

He then talked about the study and how it was conducted. He said that 50 tests were completed by training 100 Black and 100 white testers in completely randomized areas. Race associated names were used for the testers, which came from another academic study, he said. Some were voucher holders and some were not.

He said that they “did find that unfortunately…some of our Black testers got screened out immediately just by their name.”

He said that 86 percent of the voucher holders experienced discrimination, and 71 percent of the Black testers experienced discrimination in the form of “ghosting, questions regarding credit, [and] ability to tour the unit,” according to a presentation from the hearing.

“Some voucher holders were expressly told that their voucher was not a barrier to renting the unit,” the presentation stated, but “in 81 percent of those tests, evidence of discrimination was ultimately found. In 56 percent of those cases, the real estate professional ceased all communication with the testers in spite of efforts on each testers’ part to make contact.

Berman said that calls from “Tyrone” and “Ebony” were not returned by realtors, but “Brad” and “Jill,” who did not have a voucher, were invited to tour a unit.

Berman said that many voucher holders who experience discrimination do not file complaints because they only have a certain amount of time to use the voucher, so it would hold up the process. He said they typically will just take a unit anywhere they can get one, which ultimately does not provide the freedom and choice that Section 8 was intended to provide.

 Justin Steil, Associate Professor of Law and Urban Planning at MIT, said that discrimination on the basis of credit could be a cover for racial discrimination, since Section 8 holders have a significant portion of their rent covered for them.

“Addressing discrimination requires public education for home seekers,” he said. He also said there is not enough enforcement or penalty for discrimination in the city, because this it is happening all over the city and state even though it is illegal.

Vulnerable Populations, Section 8 Discriminations

Kate Bennett, Administrator and CEO for the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) said that the BHA administers about 12,000 vouchers in Boston and Greater Boston.

She said that zip codes where BHA families rent are tracked, and “many of our voucher holders are concentrated in certain neighborhoods.”

She said the BHA is working to make the housing search easier for voucher holders by providing information about certain areas, as well as public transportation and other amenities.

She also said that the BHA is “strengthening our landlord recruitment” as well. “We have a lot of work to do on the supply side of this issue,” she said. The BHA is also currently offering Boston landlords one months’ rent as an incentive to rent to voucher holders.

Additionally, voucher holders are being given more time to find housing if they feel they are being discriminated against, she said.

Barbara Chandler of Metro Housing Boston said they are doing similar things to the BHA, and they administer around 10,000 vouchers as the “largest regional administer of vouchers in the Commonwealth.” They administer vouchers through the state program as well as Section 9.

“This issue is way beyond the Section 8 program,” Chandler said. She said that Metro Housing Boston is “in the process of implementing a mobile counseling program to see if we can do more landlord recruitment,” and they have seen “an increase in not accepting voucher holders.”

Tim Davis of the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) said that the department is “dedicated to working with sister agencies to find solutions,” and $250,000 of the police overtime budget is being reallocated to the Office of Fair Housing and Equity.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Will Onuoha, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Fair Housing and Equity, said that “housing is the single most social determinant” to things like health, transportation, safety, and more.

“Fair housing is civil rights,” he said. He said the office is part of a “public-private coalition” with a selection of agencies, and another test will be conducted. He said enforcement will be sought against those who are found to be discriminatory. As the secret testing commences, information will be collected and used against the “bad actors.”

Andrew Espinoza, Director of Investigations for the Office of Fair Housing and Equity, said that the office has contracted Suffolk University, through its Housing Discrimination Testing Program, to begin this testing. The testing is funded using some of the money from the police overtime budget, he said.

“Suffolk will be testing targets multiple times,” he said. “Based on the July study, we are expecting a majority of the tests to come back positive,” which in turn will cause the majority of the tests to turn into investigations, and then enforcements.

He said that “bad actors” will be complied into a report, which will then be shared with the Boston City Council.

Espinoza said that the “goal is to make this partnership with Suffolk a yearly endeavor,” but currently there is only funding for one year.

Also on the call were people from other cities who are implementing similar testing scenarios.

Stephanie Thorpe, a civil rights testing manager in Seattle, talked about the testing process in Seattle, and how the city enforces nondiscrimination laws.

Fred Freiberg of the Fair Housing Justice Center in New York City, said he has been working in the field of fair housing enforcement for 44 years.

He said that Black people and other people of color would experience a slammed door in their face or discriminatory remarks made directly to them, but now discrimination can happen “in a more police and subtle way,” and continues to happen if no complaints are filed and no action is taken.

He said that the Fair Housing Justice Center employs actors on a “part time, as needed basis” and the office uses “state of the art technology in our testing program.”

Frieberg said that he does not believe that the “burden of enforcing fair housing laws” should rest solely on those who are affected by discrimination.

Throughout the hearing, the Council had many questions for all of the panelists and the discussion on this issue is not over. Some questions were answered at the hearing, but others will need following up by different parties. The Council will continue to talk about this issue and work towards solutions that will prevent housing discrimination in the City.

Councilor Lydia Edwards said that she recognizes that there are many people interested in this issue and who have a stake in it. Many other councilors said they look forward to implementing solutions in the near future. The full video from the hearing is expected to be posted to the Boston City Council YouTube channel.

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