WASHINGTON – Joseph Ngangum was forced to move out of his Takoma Park apartment when the new landlord said he wanted to begin major repair work on the units.
But Ngangum, who is black, said a white couple moved in to his old space two weeks after he moved out and the “repairs” were never done.
The Cameroon native sued for racial discrimination and complained to a local housing rights agency, making him part of a scant minority of victims who take action against housing discrimination, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Alliance President Shanna Smith said Wednesday that there are an estimated 3 million housing discrimination incidents in the United States each year, but only a small fraction — a little more than 25,000 last year — of them are reported.
At a news conference Wednesday, the alliance released a report that blamed the low complaint rates on the fact that many consumers “do not know their rights and . . . those who do are unlikely to file complaints.”
Local real estate representatives challenged the claim, saying they are not aware of any discrimination problems in Maryland and cannot imagine why a victim would not report abuse if it did occur.
Members of the Maryland Association of Realtors must abide by strict ethics guidelines that prohibit discrimination, and the association has a committee on equal opportunity housing, said JoAnne Poole, a spokeswoman for the organization.
“If there was a growing trend of any sort, it would be brought to the committee’s attention so that something could be done,” said Poole, who is a Realtor herself.
But Smith said “subtlety of discrimination” will continue, despite pledges by real estate agents to abide by codes of ethics. They will continue to do commit acts of discrimination “because the risk of being caught is so low,” she added.
“Who is going to punish them?” she asked.
In Montgomery County, where a recent state report identified more than 100,000 renter-occupied units, just 33 complaints were filed with the county’s Office of Human Rights in 2002, for example.
But the office’s compliance director, Michael Dennis, said that number may be misleading, since victims in Maryland could file a complaint with a county, state or federal agency. So, the 2002 case totals for his office may be lower than the actual number of complaints filed in the county last year.
Ngangum is an example of just such a case — although he lived in Takoma Park, he and two fellow tenants complained to a private non-profit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., and asked it to investigate.
But Ngangum is glad he complained and said he hopes that sharing his story may encourage others who have been victimized to come forward.
“I came to America with a dream — a dream of equality and freedom,” Ngangum said.
“It makes you feel like you are not a person, that if you are black you do not deserve a home,” he said of his case. “It has to stop.”