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Guest Column: We still have not yet conquered housing discrimination

November 13, 2013

By Jasmina Popaja
Testing and Outreach Coordinator, Prairie State Legal Services’ Fair Housing Project

Kelly and John have found the perfect apartment. The landlord denied their rental application because he feared their two boys would make too much noise and disturb the downstairs tenants. The explanation seemed reasonable, so John and Kelly continued their search. Unfortunately, they did not know the landlord unlawfully discriminated against them because they have children.

Housing discrimination is prohibited under federal and state “fair housing” laws. Less than a week following the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to increase housing choice and promote integrated communities. The act furthers these goals by protecting people from housing discrimination on the basis of certain characteristics. It prohibits housing providers engaged in rentals or sales from discriminating against people because of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability and familial status. On the state level, the Illinois Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on a person’s ancestry, marital status, military status, order of protection status, age and sexual orientation.

Despite these legal protections, there are an estimated 4 million instances of fair housing violations each year, but fewer than 1 percent of such cases are reported! Much like John and Kelly, victims of housing discrimination often do not know their rights or how to identify when their rights have been disregarded. Over the years, as victims bring forward complaints to enforce fair housing laws, housing providers have found ever more subtle ways to discriminate. For example, a person in a wheelchair schedules an appointment over the phone to view an apartment. After the potential tenant arrives at the property, revealing his or her disability, the landlord tells the apartment seeker that the unit has been rented. Without further investigation, it is difficult to determine whether the prospective renter was illegally misled about the availability of the apartment.

Private attorneys, legal aid organizations, government investigators, and fair housing advocacy groups are able to investigate on behalf of possible victims, and pursue formal complaints where there is evidence of discrimination. Some organizations have a unique ability to investigate complaints because they use volunteer fair housing “testers” to assist with the investigation process. Fair housing testers regularly pose as applicants seeking an apartment. For example, a local group might send out an African-American couple to a community seeking a certain apartment, and then it will send out a Caucasian couple to see if less favorable terms and/or conditions have been offered by management. Or, the group might contend that housing was offered to one tester, but not the other. Similar tests can be designed for discrimination against other protected categories. If there is evidence of discrimination, a victim of housing discrimination can file a fair housing complaint with certain federal, state or local agencies. A victim can also proceed directly to state or federal court, usually with the assistance of an attorney.

In Illinois, a potential victim can file a free complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) within one year of the alleged discrimination. At no charge to the victim, HUD or IDHR will investigate the claim and mediate between the parties. After a complaint is fully investigated, and if there is cause to believe discrimination occurred, HUD or IDHR will take the case to an administrative hearing.

No matter whether a complaint is filed in court or with an agency like HUD or IDHR, a complaining party can win monetary compensation for financial losses they incurred as a result of the discrimination, for his/her emotional “pain and suffering,” as well as for attorney fees. The victim can also get an order from the judge that requires the housing provider to do (i.e., provide the housing the victim wanted) or refrain from doing (i.e. stop excluding support animals under a “no pet” policy) a specific action. In court, a complaining party who wins may also get the judge to order the provider to pay the victim a sum of money solely as punishment for their wrongdoing.

Prairie State Legal Services’ Fair Housing Project, at no cost to victims, can investigate housing discrimination claims and provide representation at HUD or IDHR or in court. The project also provides community education presentations to teach people about their fair housing rights and how to address housing discrimination.

Going back to Kelly and John, had they known the landlord was discriminating against them, they likely would have been angry and could have taken action against the landlord. A fair housing organization might have investigated and assisted in filing a complaint with IDHR, HUD or the court. Their victory could have included not only compensation for their emotional suffering, but also a change in the landlord’s discriminatory behavior contributing to a more inclusive and welcoming community for all.

Although it is likely true that as a nation we have made great strides in civil rights since the assassination of Dr. King, the evidence remains that we still have a long way to go in the fight to end discrimination in housing. Success will only be achieved if each one of us determines to empower ourselves with knowledge about the fair housing laws and the many resources available to combat housing discrimination. Only in this way will we be able to move closer to our common goal of living in communities free from unlawful discrimination. I will write more about this topic in future columns appearing in this space.

Jasmina Popaja is testing and outreach coordinator for Prairie State Legal Services’ Fair Housing Project. Prairie State Legal Services’ Fair Housing Project is a new program serving Winnebago and Boone counties and funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For more information or to find your local office, visit www.pslegal.org. The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under a grant with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the federal government.

From the Nov. 13-19, 2013, issue

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