WASHINGTON – Only about 1 percent of all estimated cases of housing discrimination were reported in 2001, and of those that were, most claimed bias against blacks, families with children and people with disabilities, according to a report released Wednesday.
Maryland advocates said the state mirrors the national picture, but added that a substantial number of residents who wanted to rent or buy a home here also reported that they were treated unfairly because of their age or income or language skills — categories that were not measured by the study.
The National Fair Housing Alliance survey, which analyzed data from private housing agencies and the federal government, found that Americans filed about 23,600 complaints of illegal housing discrimination last year. While the figure is up from 22,100 in 2000, experts said it still is markedly less than what is actually happening.
“Housing discrimination is much more subtle these days,” said Michael Mitchell of the Equal Rights Center, which handles cases in the Washington metro area and elsewhere in the state. “It’s often done with a handshake and a smile.”
But local advocates also said an increasing number of offenses are not so subtle. They said they are getting more complaints from women who said their landlords forced them to trade sex for basic maintenance or utility services. The situation is particularly terrifying, advocates said, because offenders typically have keys to women’s apartments.
Landlords wield greater power to discriminate in the Washington and Baltimore areas because of the high demand for housing, Mitchell said.
“Because there is a tight housing market and you might have four or five people interested in the same unit, it gives the housing provider an even greater opportunity to discriminate,” he said.
Tracey Gill, fair housing program manager at Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., said that of the 205 complaints her agency received from across the state last year, most cited veiled attempts to keep minorities and families with small children out of certain neighborhoods or apartment complexes.
In most cases, property managers politely took information from hopeful tenants, then told them vacant units already had been filled. Gill suggested that deception happened more often with small-scale landlords, “who often are not part of the bigger professional organizations who really pay attention to the fair housing laws and make sure their members are in compliance.”
“They probably are going to be the most blatant violators of the law,” she said.
Larry Lick, who runs Rental Housing Online, said that may be the case with some property managers. Generally, though, small landlords are more likely today to understand their responsibilities than they were when Congress passed the nation’s first fair-housing law three decades ago.
“Mom-and-pop landlords certainly did not understand fair-housing laws in the old days,” said Lick, who noted that more than 100 small Maryland landlords receive regular information from his Internet service.
“Now they have so much more information, so much more education,” he said. “They no longer have an excuse for not knowing.”
Debbie Hager, of the Maryland Association of Realtors, said continuing education and a strict sanctioning process for violators has made real estate agents more aware of their responsibility to uphold federal fair-housing standards.
But Shanna Smith, executive director of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said that only a major investment by the federal government would help eliminate housing discrimination.
“We’re not getting better, we’re getting worse,” Smith said. “But change could happen if Congress would appropriate more money . . . to investigate the complaints they do get and to advertise to get more complaints.”
Mitchell stressed that however it happens, tenants should become educated about fair housing and landlords should face stiff punishments if they break the law. Much more is at stake for residents than just a roof over their heads, he said.
“When people are denied the opportunity to live where they want to, they’re often denied much more than just that particular unit,” Mitchell said. “It affects where their children will go to school, who they will associate with, their opportunity to access transportation to get to jobs.”