Federal disaster officials said Saturday that earthquake victims seeking emergency housing have lodged more than 200 complaints against landlords for alleged illegal discrimination.
The officials, responding to what they termed a "substantial" problem, issued a warning that landlords would be hauled into court and prosecuted if they used race, gender, national origin, disabilities or family size to discriminate against quake victims seeking housing.
Roberta Achtenberg, a federal Housing and Urban Development assistant secretary, said a strike force of fair housing officials has been set up in Los Angeles to deal with the complaints.
"We will be a significant presence now and into the foreseeable future," said Achtenberg, explaining that such discrimination is against federal and state fair-housing law.
Reinforcing Achtenberg's comments at a news briefing in Pasadena, Nelson A. Diaz, general counsel for HUD, promised that the strike team will take aggressive action against landlords who discriminate.
"We will issue charges as quickly as possible and make sure they are brought before a court of law," he said.
"We have nothing else to do, but to make sure that (fair housing law) is enforced."
Achtenberg said that among the complaints received by disaster officials was one from an African American woman who contended that a landlord sought an extra $120 "under the table" when she attempted to rent an apartment through the federal emergency housing plan.
In another case, Achtenberg said, a dark-skinned Iranian couple arranged by phone to rent emergency housing, but were told when they arrived that a mistake had been made and that the apartment was rented.
Shortly afterward, a fair-skinned couple with no accent was offered the apartment, Achtenberg said.
HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros said Saturday that 12,804 federal certificates for 18 months of subsidized housing had been handed out to quake victims, but only 2,372 families who have received certificates have obtained leases. A smaller number, 618, have moved in, he said.
"The real challenge now is to try to move people into apartments," Cisneros said.
To make the program more attractive to landlords, certain federal regulations have been waived, such as the subsidized housing requirement that landlords give tenants 90 days to move after receiving eviction notices, he said.
Cisneros said some landlords were reluctant to lease apartments to certificate holders for fear the tenants would be unable to pay the rent after the 18-month emergency subsidy ends.
"We do not want to give people a three-month free ride on the backs of property owners," he said.