Racial and ethnic discrimination in housing has been a concern since Congress adopted the federal Fair Housing Act 20 years ago. The law, which gave the government a "conciliation role" in housing discrimination disputes, was made tougher this year--protection now includes the handicapped and families with children.
Housing discrimination remains widespread. It can be blatant, as when a building manager sees a minority applicant or mixed-race couple and refuses to show the apartment. But far more often, housing discrimination is subtle. It can occur when a building manager says that the last vacant unit was just rented or when a landlord asks for an unusually large deposit or extensive credit report. In California, most discrimination cases involve black apartment seekers.
Times staff writer Jill Stewart followed an Asian, a Latino and a black as they applied for apartments in Glendale, the Fairfax District of Los Angeles and along the Beverly Hills-Los Angeles border, areas where incidents of discrimination have been reported. Each applicant sought a two-bedroom unit and told the landlord that he or she was a single parent with a teen-age child. If the subject came up during tours of the apartments, applicants reported their salaries as about $40,000.
The volunteers were Robert A. Arias, a Latino affirmative action compliance officer for Los Angeles County; Phillip Dixon, a black assistant metropolitan editor at The Times, and Lily Chen, an Asian who is the former mayor of Monterey Park and is public affairs director of the Los Angeles County Children's Services Department.
Staff writer Stewart, who is Anglo, applied at the same apartments for comparative purposes. As with the others, she told landlords that she was a single parent with a child. This is Stewart's account:
In December, Chen was shown two-bedroom units in a new building in a popular area of Glendale. During a thorough tour of the complex, the owner explained that the downstairs apartment was nicer because it offered more room but said he would give it to Chen for the same price as an upstairs apartment, both for $775.
He told her that she would need to meet the manager of the building before any final decision would be made upon her as a tenant, but he "appeared to be very interested in me and my experience there was most positive. He told me there would be no problem getting the apartment." He said she would be asked to pay first and last months' rent plus a $100 cleaning deposit and gave her an application form to complete.
A few days later, I had an identical experience.
In December, Dixon looked at a different apartment complex in a desirable Glendale neighborhood where two-bedroom units were being offered for $800 a month. A "very friendly" real estate agent told Dixon that there were several units available and showed him two with different layouts. She assured him that the city had good schools that were not part of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
After a lengthy tour, she offered to accept a $200 check to hold his favorite apartment until his application was processed, and she told him he would be subjected to a credit check at a cost of $15. She said that if anyone applied for the apartment he wanted meanwhile, she would let him know. "If I had wanted to get an apartment there, I could have gotten one there," Dixon said. "I didn't sense that she was going through the motions. She took her time going through the apartments. I got a sense that she was willing to rent me."
A few days later, I looked at the same apartment and had an identical experience.
At a third building in Glendale, Chen hit it off immediately with the owner, who was "absolutely very cordial" and showed her around the building in a working-class Glendale neighborhood. He mentioned to her that he had rented apartments to two black professional people "who they just really enjoy as tenants." She told him about her work with the county and chatted with the landlord. "The owner simply said that if I would pick one apartment, they wanted first and last months' rent. They made it very clear they would have rented it to me on the spot, without any background checks." Nor was she asked to complete an application form.
I later saw the same apartment and had a similar experience to Chen's, including the mention by the owner that the building had some black tenants.