The 168 illegal housing discrimination complaints handled by the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan in 2008 set an all-time record and marked the fifth consecutive year that the number of allegations of some form of bias had risen.
But the 2008 number was shattered last year when complaints reached 301 — an increase of 79 percent in just 12 months. Almost all the complaints were from the rental-housing market. Some were filed by persons seeking a place to live, while others were discovered through testing by the FHCWM. Most were based on for-rent ads placed by landlords.
Nancy Haynes, the agency’s executive director, said one reason for the huge increase was that more people were forced to enter into the rental market last year after losing their homes to foreclosure. But she didn’t feel that was the sole factor.
“We have people who formerly owned their own homes who went out to look to rent. I think that’s definitely a part of it. I also think, because of this economy, a lot of people have gotten in the property management business in a couple of different ways. One, they’ve got rooms in their houses they’re not using and they decide to subdivide their house or rent rooms in their house, and they know nothing about their obligations under the law, and so mistakes are made that way,” said Haynes.
“I think another thing is you can really get some great deals on houses through a short sale or investors getting properties from foreclosures or from banks. People pick up properties, fix them up a little bit, and then put them on the (rental) market — and, again, no experience in this industry and there is no licensing requirement. To be a Realtor, you have to go through training, but to be a landlord, you don’t.”
By far, most of the housing complaints last year were based on familial status, meaning landlords were advertising units that excluded children or only wanted a certain type of person as a tenant. Those ads violate federal and state laws. Allegations of familial status were cited in 170 of the 301 complaints last year and have led the complaint list since 2007. Gender was a very distant second at 41 complaints, and race rounded out the top three with 28.
Haynes felt some of the ads were unintentionally placed by people who didn’t know the laws. But she also said many ads were purposely placed because landlords only wanted to rent to certain types of tenants. “I think there are people who definitely intend not to rent to people with children. A lot of these new landlords say, ‘I’ve just spent my Saturdays and Sundays for the last three months working on this house. There’s no way I want to let a family with young children live here,’” she said.
“So it might be intentional, but it’s totally oblivious to the law. They don’t even know that fair housing is out there. I’ve talked to Clay Powell at the Rental Property Owners Association and (new landlords) are not joining RPOA because they don’t see this as their primary source of income. They don’t understand the value of joining RPOA where they could get fair-housing training.”
Haynes said the center also conducted 386 matched pair tests last year in 20 cities across West Michigan and found 29 instances of housing discrimination based on familial status and 65 based upon race. A matched pair test for, say, racial prejudice involves a minority responding to a rental ad, followed by a white person doing the same to determine if discrimination exists. Some of the tests FHCWM did last year also confirmed discrimination allegations made by individuals; those outcomes were sent to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, where further investigations are being conducted.
An examination of the complaint-based results over the past six years reveals that race as a reason for a complaint has fallen from 69 in 2004 to 28 in 2009, so some might conclude that racial discrimination in the rental-housing market has faded. But Haynes said that wouldn’t be the right conclusion because the center’s tests still show that race plays a major role in whether someone finds a place to rent.
Landlords who don’t necessarily discriminate in practice may unintentionally discriminate in their advertisements. For instance, a landlord might include “perfect for a retired couple” in an ad and not realize that doing so amounts to age discrimination., Haynes said.
“Just the ad itself can violate the law. Even if someone doesn’t turn people away or discriminate in practice, if the ad is discriminatory, that’s a violation.”
Haynes said her organization will review anyone’s ad at no charge and tell them if there is a problem with it. If there is, the center will offer a correction. But with so many electronic sources like Craig’s List and RentGR.com for landlords to use and with so many more units in the rental market, the FHCWM can’t track all ads. There is a solution, though, and the center is trying to see that it’s implemented.
“With all those search engines, there aren’t any filters. So what we’ve really pressed for are filters that would educate someone by highlighting a portion of the ad and telling someone why that potentially violates the act,” said Haynes.
“With a filter, we could avoid so many problems because when we end up resolving a lot of these cases against people who are new in the business, they say, ‘Why didn’t someone tell me? Why didn’t they stop me from posting this discriminatory ad?’ We say, ‘We feel the same way.’”
A growing problem?
The number of illegal housing discrimination complaints compiled by the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan has risen each year since 2004, but not as rapidly as from 2008 to 2009 when it rose from 168 to 301. Here is the year-by-year tally of complaints for the last six years.
Source: Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, 2009 Annual Report.