Test suggests discrimination against African Americans in search of rental housing

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Council member Jeff Ritterman listen to findings from a recently completed fair housing test. Ritterman said the City

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Council member Jeff Ritterman listen to findings from a recently completed fair housing test. Ritterman said the City "meant business" when it came to rooting out housing discrimination. (photo by: Alexis Kenyon)

A local housing attorney painted a disheartening picture of racial discrimination in Richmond at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, making a case that potential African American renters routinely received rental terms and conditions that were less favorable than their Caucasian counterparts.

Typically, such discrimination is hard to quantify and goes unnoticed. “One of the biggest problems with housing discrimination is that it’s often invisible to the victims,” said David Levin of Bay Area Legal Aid. In this case, Levin teamed with nonprofit Fair Housing Marin to create a “fair housing test” to associate actual numbers with the problem.

Using rental advertisements posted on Craigslist, volunteer testers randomly placed phone calls to 20 housing providers across four neighborhoods — Marina Bay, Point Richmond, Richmond Annex and Hilltop. Each provider received two calls — one from an interested Caucasian caller, and another, separate call from an African American inquiring about the rental unit and asking similar questions. To ensure that each caller’s race could be indentified over the phone, the voice recordings were submitted to a panel of judges and were deemed racially identifiable.

According to Matt Oglander, Fair Housing Marin’s testing coordinator, 16 of the 20 calls showed “a substantial amount of differential treatment” and favored the Caucasian tester. African Americans often didn’t receive callbacks, and, in multiple calls, were not told of available units. Levin said that, in nearly half the test calls, “the Caucasian was told about lower income requirements for renting.” Of those 16 test calls, 11 were deemed significantly discriminatory, with the remaining five labeled somewhat discriminatory. Oglander noted that the overall numbers were significantly higher than results from similar tests in nearby Marin and Sonoma counties.

The 20 housing providers contacted collectively manage more than 3,000 rental units in the city. Council member Jeff Ritterman tried to put the results into perspective.

“So I’m guessing that we have 35,000 households in Richmond, and half of them are rentals, so that’s 17,500,” he said. “So these 3,000 actually represent one in six, so this is a huge number of people [that are affected].”

Ritterman was eager to use the test results as a jumping off point for punishing discriminatory housing providers. He questioned City Attorney Randy Riddle about possible legal recourse.

“Can you prosecute on the basis of a telephone interview like this?” Ritterman asked.

Riddle said that an organization like Bay Area Legal Aid or Fair Housing Marin can bring about legal action in its own right, and that the city can represent victims of discrimination in lawsuits. He stopped short of condoning direct prosecution, saying that most laws dealing with fair housing exist at the state and federal level.

Short of legal action, Ritterman floated the idea of requiring housing providers to participate in fair housing training. Council member Tom Butt suggested publishing the names of offenders.

City Manager Bill Lindsay said the City itself may have unknowingly contributed to the poor test results.

“Richmond Housing Authority owns market-rate units in the Hilltop area, so who knows?” he said. “We may be a property owner that got a phone call.”

In six months, Levin and Oglander will present results from another fair housing test looking at discrimination against Latino renters.

One Comment

  1. Anita Johnson

    Thank you Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilmember Jovanka Beckles for bringing this study to the attention of Richmond residents. Thank you councilmember Jeff Ritterman for looking into solutions.
    There are others there who claim to represent African Americans and are doing nothing for African Americans.

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