A December, 2012 investigative report by ProPublica
describes the approach used in employing fair housing testers to prove race discrimination in rental housing
by the New York City non-profit fair housing group Fair Housing Justice Center(1)
and its excecutive director, Fred Freiberg, in the following excerpt:
- The best way to detect such [race disriminatory] practices today, experts and housing officials say, is to send actors of different races posing as renters and homebuyers.
But HUD opted to fund non-profits around the country to perform such tests and bring the majority of lawsuits involving housing discrimination. More than two decades later, these groups, which on average have just five staff members, process 65 percent of the nation's fair housing complaints and account for nearly all of the fair housing testing conducted in the United States.
Officials at non-profit groups say most of the testing that is done is in response to complaints. Tight resources mean they do not work to bring to light previously unknown individuals or companies that systematically discriminate, but rather to build a case on behalf of people who say they were victimized and who want to file a case.
Freiberg said that approach is unlikely to detect the larger patterns of discrimination or catch serial, systemic perpetrators. At his organization, Freiberg begins his inquiries with sophisticated mapping software that identifies enclaves in New York City where the racial patterns of housing conflict with area demographics and income.
When he identifies a suspect neighborhood in what is the nation's third most segregated city, Freiberg sends in teams of professional actors to work as testers.
Adrienne, an actor and director, joined the testing program in 2005. She didn't expect the gig to last because she doubted they'd find much discrimination.
The 45-year-old black woman grew up on a Brooklyn block that, she said, evoked the multi-cultural ideals of Sesame Street. Her two best childhood friends were Jewish and Puerto Rican.
Freiberg agreed to allow Adrienne to describe her experiences as a tester as long as her full name was not published. She said her work has forever changed her view of a city she once viewed as a melting pot, and she remains particularly haunted by a case she investigated three years ago.
Freiberg had tapped Adrienne to test in an area of Queens he wanted to target because it was just 3 percent black. The borough, however, was 17 percent black and the entire city 27 percent black. Armed with a recording device, Adrienne headed to a leafy block in Astoria to ask about a renting an apartment in a well-maintained 72-unit building.
"Hi, my name is, Adrienne," she told the super, offering her hand. "How are you?" he said, introducing himself as Louie.
Adrienne asked if any apartments were available. She needed something, she said, by the first of the month. In the recording, Louie Dodaj seemed regretful as he explained that the only open apartment had just been rented. He politely answered each of Adrienne's questions, took her number and promised to call when something opened up.
Adrienne remembers feeling certain that Dodaj was sincerely trying to help her, that he "would have totally put me in that apartment if he'd had one." Less than 20 minutes later, a white actor asked Dodaj about renting an apartment. "Want to take a look?" he asked.
Though the apartment had sat vacant for more than a month, it was the third time Louie had been caught on tape turning black testers away while just a few moments later welcoming white ones with similar backgrounds, credit and income.
With evidence from Adrienne and others, the Fair Housing Justice Center sued the property owner, Broadway Crescent Realty, for housing discrimination. In November 2011, the non-profit settled the case for $341,000 and the company's promise to submit to monitoring and set up new procedures to insure that its 30 properties comply with the Fair Housing Act.
A representative at Broadway Crescent Realty said the company would not comment on the case. Dodaj's attorney also declined to comment, and attempts to reach Dodaj were unsuccessful. The company and Dodaj denied wrongdoing in the settlement documents.
Adrienne said she's disheartened by the experience of being politely denied housing again and again and can't understand why the federal government is not doing more to root out a problem that seems so pervasive.
"I can't change the color of my skin. I can't change your opinion about that," she said. "Someone has to have a way of finding out in order to help me fight it, because there wouldn't have been a way for me to know on my own. That's why it keeps happening, because there is no consequence."
Over the past several years, Freiberg's organization has brought cases in neighborhoods across New York City. It settled a suit with a Bronx apartment building and its real estate agent for steering away black buyers. It brought a case against a Brooklyn landlord who could not prove he had ever rented to an African American in 40 years. The center also reached a settlement in Brooklyn with a real estate company that had refused to serve black renters.
Testing was the crucial element in each of these cases, Freiberg said. It provided indisputable, tape-recorded evidence that housing professionals were turning away Adrienne and others of color while offering the same properties to white home seekers.