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Making The Case--Again

April 16, 1988

Federal law has clearly prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of housing for two decades. California has even stricter laws and it enforces them better, but some landlords and apartment managers still don't get the message.

State authorities handled 800 complaints last year filed primarily by black tenants seeking apartments, according to Times staff writer David Ferrell. That may not sound like widespread bias, but obviously many incidents go unreported.

Federal experts plan to find out just how common housing discrimination is against black Americans and Latinos with a far-reaching survey in 25 cities. The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, aims to increase enforcement against housing discrimination and test the case for stronger legislation. Federal laws lack tough enforcement powers, and HUD, unlike California's state commission, can impose no penalties.

In a follow-up of a landmark national survey completed in 1979, HUD will send out hundreds of white, black and Latino couples. The couples, similar in income and background, will try to buy or rent homes in 25 cities. Similar local studies have always turned up incidents in which white landlords refuse to rent to minority applicants and, increasingly, examples in which minority landlords deny apartments to other minorities.

Based on the national survey in 1979, HUD officials calculate that 2 million black Americans encounter housing discrimination. Because only black and white testers participated, HUD can only guess at the experience of other minorities. The results did indicate, however, that a black renter, who looks at only one apartment, has a 25% chance of encountering discrimination. Despite that strong evidence, and despite bitter fights, Congress has not approved tougher legislation.

Housing discrimination may not be the common problem it was when the landmark survey was completed in 1979. It may not be the pervasive problem it was when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, a week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and only after a six-week filibuster by opponents in the Senate. But it is certainly worth another look.

Housing discrimination may not be the entrenched problem it was for generations when black Americans and other minorities dared not even consider owning or renting a home in certain areas. But the complaints prove that it simply won't go away.

HUD's new survey, announced Monday, will quantify the incidence of bias 20 years after passage of the Fair Housing Act. Evidence of discrimination should give impetus to stronger federal legislation. All Americans ought to be able to live wherever they can afford. That is only fair.

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