Testing for housing bias begins soon

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 19, 2004

Times-Journal Writer

Testing for patterns of discrimination in the rental and sale of housing could begin in Selma and other areas of the Black Belt as early as February, according to Faith Cooper, executive director of the Montgomery-based Central Alabama Fair Housing Center (CAFHC).

Cooper was recently interviewed following announcement of the Bush Administration’s awards of $17.6 million in fair housing grants to continue the fight against housing bias nationwide.

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Alabama nonprofit agencies in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery were awarded a total of $685,405. CAFHC will receive $205,739 over the next 18 months to conduct educational and enforcement activities to ensure that housing discrimination is not taking place in the 29-county region served by the agency. It was founded in 1995 and has been funded through Housing and Urban Development department grants since then. CAFHC’s focus is on three metropolitan areas – Montogomery, Dothan and Selma – and the rural areas surrounding. All of the counties adjoining Dallas are included in the agency’s service area.

Cooper said that the agency has conducted activities in Selma and Dallas County almost since the beginning.

She said that on average that CAFHC handles approximately 100 complaints annually of housing bias in rental or purchase situations, and that 60 percent of these are in Montgomery. She did not have immediately available precise figures for Selma and Dallas County.

However, she said that as part of the agency’s educational work, a number of visits have been made to the area and presentations made, especially in area churches and in

gatherings of other service organizations. About three years ago, she said, a program was presented to local realtors.

The central tool used by CAFHC and similar agencies around the country is what’s called “testing,” that is, sending trained volunteers into an area in pairs, each member of which resembles the partner as closely as possible, except for the protected category being tested, such as race, national origin, religion. Such testing provides extremely reliable results, she said.

Typically, particular rental and sale properties are approached by prospective renters or buyers, independently. Then a record is made of how each is treated and whether they were treated the same or differently.

For example, a major HUD study done in the year 2000, with results released last year, found that there continues to be substantial housing discrimination against African-Americans and others in both rental and sales housing markets. The only metropolitan study conducted in Alabama – Birmingham – followed the national trends, except the findings were considerably worse.

Nationally, African-Americans faced discrimination in 21.6 percent of

the test cases involving rentals, and 17.0 percent of the test cases involving sale.

In Birmingham, the corresponding figures were 28.6 percent for rental tests and 27.3 percent of sales tests.

Cooper believes on the basis of past experience that the situation is bleaker in smaller cities such as Dothan and Selma and the rural areas.

The HUD summary describing the grant to CAFHC states: “The CAFHC will continue housing enforcement activities under this 18-month initiative. Underserved communities in Montgomery and its neighboring communities will be the beneficiaries of the services, which will reach African-Americans and other of protected classes. Targeted areas encompass rural, impoverished west Alabama Black Belt (Selma) and the southeast Alabama Wiregrass Region. By expanding its strong links with civil rights agencies, local community organizations and HUD, CAFHC anticipates completing testing in sales, rental and predatory lending. Accessibility and accommodations testing, plus other non-testing investigations are planned.”

CAFHC is a nonprofit agency with an annual budget ranging from $120,000-150,000 and has three employees. It works with dozens of volunteers in its various programs over time.

When cases of alleged discrimination are reported or discovered through testing and other means, the agency works with HUD to develop appropriate remedies, including complaints filed in federal or state courts. Alabama also has laws against housing bias, she noted.

Discrimination is not nearly as blatant as it once was, Cooper noted. But it continues to be widespread. Today’s version comes in the nonverbal form of “a handshake and a smile,” she said.

For further information, contact Central Alabama Fair Housing Center, 207 Montgomery St., Montgomery, AL 36104 or call (334) 263-4663.