"I Won't Rent to You Until I See Your Green Card"
by Alanna Gothard

Every day, thousands of people in need of safe, affordable housingfind themselves turned away for reasons they cannot control. Now with immigration under attack, people risk losing more housing opportunities regardless of their legal status in the United States.

"Sorry, I only rent to citizens."

"Have kids? The apartment is too small."

"We don't insure houses in the city."

"I won't sell my house to those people."

Hearing or being exposed to unscrupulous housing providers who constantly make statements like those above, negatively affects innocent people and deprives them of their right to decide where they want to live. In 1968, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Congress finally passed the Fair Housing Act. The passage of this act made it illegal to discriminate in real estate related transactions on the basis of color, religion, race, national origin, and sex. In 1988, disability and familial status were added to the federal law. New York State later expanded protections to include marital status, age, and sexual orientation. The law covers "real estate related transactions." This includes protection for people applying for a mortgage in order to ensure that people with similar credit receive similar interest rates; people needing homeowner's insurance receive adequate coverage at a fair price; agents don't steer white people and people of color to segregated neighborhoods. While these laws are necessary and important, many housing providers simply disregard the laws due to prejudices or stereotypes they hold about people who differ from them.

Segregation: Lasting Effects on Communities

While the law prevents some forms of discrimination, other types persist without any boundaries, limits, or protections. While some states, such as Massachusetts and Vermont, protect recipients of social programs from discrimination, New York State does not mandate that housing providers have to accept public assistance or Section 8 vouchers. The result is fewer options for people who rely on these programs. This accepted form of discrimination often forces people to remain in school districts and neighborhoods they wish to leave. Refusal to accept rental assistance programs coupled with credit checks and high application fees often set a very high standard for who may live in a particular apartment. Not only are people of low income adversely affected, but persons with disabilities also often cannot meet the application criteria because the disability payments they receive are so low.

When discrimination occurs, whether it is a legal or illegal form, the effect ripples through communities. People are deprived of multi-cultural neighborhoods, professional relationships, and integrated schools that celebrate various cultures and lifestyles. The status quo remains: suburban flight continues as people leave city neighborhoods they perceive to be plagued by poverty, race, and crime. Many develop a fear of people who rely on public assistance or vouchers. At the same time, many low-income residents who wish to leave the city are prevented by housing discrimination, lack of public transportation, lack of social services and programs, and a general lack of support. The simple fact that most suburbs are predominantly Caucasian makes it more difficult for people of color to move, because they may feel intimidated to be the first people of color on the block or in a development. The reverse is also true: people contemplating moving back into cities feel intimidated by the noise, crowds, poverty, and violence portrayed in the news. However, these problems often have social or institutional causes - crowds in the streets may be due to a lack of parks and other green spaces, poverty a result of our classist society and an economy that requires both low-wage workers and a certain level of unemployment.

Too often people are judged on the basis of how they appear or speak without any regard to facts, such as:
Can they afford the apartment?
How were the landlord references?
Is their income sufficient to pay the rent?
Were they evicted previously? If so, why?

These are just examples of questions housing providers should ask or worry about instead of skin color, accents, number of children, religion, sexual orientation, or membership in a protected class.

Discrimination forces people to pay more for less - being denied their first choice of apartment, they often accept another, more expensive apartment, causing more economic hardship on the families and individuals who can least afford it. There are other hardships as well. A family may be forced to move out of their current apartment if ownership changes and the new landlord won't rent to people with children - the result may include a change in school district, increased rent, and longer commutes. Homebuyers may never see the house with the amenities they want, and homes may be underinsured or not insured at all, increasingly exposing vulnerable homeowners to dangers that could result in homelessness or personal liability.

The Fair Housing Council of Central New York (FHCCNY) is the only agency in Central New York that focuses on housing discrimination. It also has a predatory lending/foreclosure rescue project. Every day we receive calls from across the region, including many from people of color, families with children, persons with a disability, and residents from other countries. In 2005 we settled a case with Saddleclub apartments, because they stopped renewing leases of families with children, sent out a newsletter demanding that tenants get rid of children's toys, and did not allow new families to move in. We filed a complaint with HUD on behalf of a client with a disability who was charged a security deposit for his service animal, even though his animal is medically necessary. We successfully negotiated for a client living in subsidized housing in the city to obtain an assigned parking spot because she cannot walk farther than 30 feet. These are just a few examples of the cases we investigate in order to enforce the Fair Housing Act.

The FHCCNY serves a broad geographic range including Onondaga, Cayuga, Oswego, Jefferson, and St. Lawrence Counties, and beyond. Discrimination is not just a city issue, or a suburban issue, or a rural issue; it's everyone's issue. Discrimination must be taken seriously - housing is one of the most basic humans needs, yet people are often deprived of their right to choose where to live, or to remain in the place they have chosen. It also goes beyond simply letting someone move in - does a housing provider respond to calls from people of color as often as Caucasian tenants? Do people with disabilities receive the accommodations and modifications they need? Is a family being charged higher rent because they have more than two children? These practices continue to discriminate even if a family or individual is able to rent the apartment or house they choose.

Discrimination in Central New York 2005 STATISTICS
54% of Complaints were from African American People

70% of Complaints were from Women with Children

90% of People Served are Low Income, Very Low Income, or Extremely Low Income

How Can I Help?
While the FHCCNY investigates, enforces, and even litigates fair housing practices, the agency also does education and outreach to at-risk communities, trains housing providers, bankers, and management companies, and advocates for and counsels clients. However, one agency is not enough. It takes an entire community and the people in the community to eradicate segregation and discrimination.

If you or anyone you know suspects they were discriminated against, they should call the Fair Housing Council of Central New York (FHCCNY). One way the FHCCNY establishes a pattern of discrimination is by utilizing civil rights investigators. Civil rights investigators pose as home seekers to help establish a pattern of discrimination. If you are interested in becoming a Civil Rights Investigator, please contact the Fair Housing Council of Central New York at 471-0420.

Alanna works at the Fair Housing Council and formerly served on SPC's Steering Committee.