Gulf Watch: Racism plagues N.O. area rental housing market

An audit conducted by a fair housing advocacy group has documented extensive racial discrimination in the New Orleans area rental housing market.

Released yesterday by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, the 2007 Fair Housing Rental Study -- titled "For Rent, Unless You're Black" -- found a 57.5 percent rate of racial discrimination in metro New Orleans rental housing searches. In other words, in nearly six out of every 10 transactions, African-American testers with the same jobs, credit, career paths, income, family types and rental histories as white testers were treated less favorably by landlords.

The discrimination did not involve the use of racial slurs or outright statements of racism, the audit found:

Instead, strategies were covert. Housing providers simply didn't return phone calls from African American testers, didn't provide applications to African American testers, and/or didn't show available rental units to African American testers.

The GNOFHAC conducted a total of 40 tests in four parishes: Orleans (9 tests), Jefferson (20 tests), St. Tammany (10 tests) and St. Bernard (1 test). It based the number of tests conducted in each parish on post-hurricane population estimates from the 2006 Louisiana Health and Population Survey. The rental housing units included in the audit were selected randomly from print and Internet listings of available units.

Of those tests conducted in Jefferson Parish, differential treatment occurred in 50 percent of the cases. That figure was 60 percent in St. Tammany, 55 percent in Orleans and 100 percent in St. Bernard.

Discriminatory treatment fell into several categories: difference in access to appointments to view units, which occurred in 20 percent of the tests; information regarding availability of units (40 percent); access to applications (35 percent); terms and conditions (12.5 percent); favorability of units shown (5 percent); access to waiting lists (5 percent); and response to voice messages (20 percent).

In one example from Orleans Parish, an African-American tester who had made an appointment to view two available units showed up and was told there was only one unit available -- and was allowed only to peek into its window. Later that same day, a white tester responding to the same advertisement was greeted by the same agent, encouraged to view a luxury unit that had not been shown to the African-American tester, and was allowed to view the two available units. The white tester was also told of another unit that would soon be available, information that was not shared with the African-American tester.

In the introduction to the report, GNOFHAC President Anthony Keck acknowledged that racial discrimination was a problem in the metro area's housing market even before Hurricane Katrina. However, he noted that the disaster made addressing the problem even more urgent:

Post-Katrina, we face entirely new challenges, where decisions and actions by those in power have the potential to cement in place for the next 100 years entirely new patterns of discrimination on a grand scale -- not just in housing, but in health care, education and most other social institutions.

Already, an alarming number of local politicians in Orleans, Jefferson and surrounding parishes have actively tried to discourage the poor -- disproportionately Black, Latino, single mothers, disabled or the elderly -- from returning home by blocking the construction of multi-family housing in their districts, towns or Parishes. The prevalent but unchallenged notion in our public discourse of "not wanting to concentrate poverty" is more of an insult than a remedy. Who is deciding what level of income and housing price is good and what level is bad? Why don't we instead "concentrate" on building the local small businesses, parks, schools, police force and health clinics to support vibrant communities regardless of class, income, race, disability, and national origin? It may simply be easier for our leaders to tear down rather than build up.

The report offers several recommendations to address the problem. They include making fair housing a primary component in the rebuilding process, getting business owners and developers involved, expanding private fair housing initiatives, funding fair housing enforcement and education, holding state and local agencies accountable for upholding the Fair Housing Act, and dedicating resources to preserve and expand affordable rental housing.