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A Times Editorial

Talk alone won't end housing bias

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002

The Pinellas County Office of Human Rights never has conducted a comprehensive, countywide test to find out how often minorities are discriminated against when they try to rent an apartment here.

That is, until this year. The results are appalling. The federal Fair Housing Act may have outlawed discrimination in housing, but it is a long way from gone in Pinellas County. In fact, discrimination was so great and so widespread that it appears to be just part of doing business in the rental apartment community.

More than 30 testers were hired and trained, then sent out in pairs to 100 apartment complexes throughout the county. A white tester would go in and apply for an apartment. Then a black or Hispanic tester would go in. The testers were trained to present essentially identical profiles when it came to financial status, occupation, family size and housing needs. Afterward, they compared notes.

In 73 percent of the visits countywide, black testers were treated differently in some substantial way. Hispanic testers reported differences 56 percent of the time. Those numbers are horrid enough, but break down the results by community and even worse statistics emerge.

Largo's numbers were the worst. Blacks were treated differently 89 percent of the time. Rare indeed is the black person applying for an apartment in Largo who does not encounter discrimination. Hispanic testers reported being treated differently 67 percent of the time.

What constitutes different treatment? A white tester would ask to see an apartment and was shown one. A black person making the same request immediately afterward would be told the timing was inconvenient. A white tester would be offered special deals such as a lower security deposit or move-in specials. No mention of the specials would be made to black testers. Black testers were asked probing questions more often than white testers or were given different forms to fill out.

Though Largo had the worst numbers, no community was free of discrimination. In Clearwater, which has a large and growing Hispanic population, Hispanic testers reported different treatment "only" 30 percent of the time, but black testers experienced it on 73 percent of the visits. In St. Petersburg, black testers were treated differently from the white testers 62 percent of the time and Hispanics 50 percent.

The Pinellas County testers also checked for discrimination toward apartment applicants with children and handicapped applicants. A bright spot in the test was that only 29 percent of the disabled testers reported different treatment. But there was substantial discrimination toward those who needed accessibility (68 percent) and those with children (53 percent).

Discrimination in housing because of race, gender, religion, handicap or family status is against federal law. Repeated violations can bring fines of thousands of dollars. But those civil penalties seldom are assessed, leading to a nonchalance about the issue or even flaunting of the law's provisions.

Any person in one of those protected classes should be able to go to an apartment complex in Pinellas County, ask for an application or to see an apartment, and be treated courteously and equally with any white applicant. That this does not happen -- indeed, that in some communities like Largo it seldom happens if you are black -- demands action from government as well as the private sector.

The Office of Human Rights already is responding by putting together educational seminars for apartment owners/managers and real estate agents, and the Bay Area Apartment Association has agreed to work to get members to attend the seminars. Elected and appointed government officials have been given the results of the study, and the conscientious ones have begun to talk about what the cities can do to ensure that fair housing laws are observed in their communities. They should make sure they do more than just talk.

The results of the study certainly indicate that another test should be done in a year or two to determine if progress has been made or if the discrimination is just as atrocious as it was early this year. If it is, authorities should not shy from pursuing all available penalties against against those who discriminate.

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