Housing Discrimination Rampant Against Immigrants and Others

Posted May 11, 2012 in by Ada Kulesza

A new survey released last week shows that immigrants, the disabled, and families with children aren’t welcome some places. Immigrants  face the greatest hardships in finding legal recourse for housing discrimination, according to the nationwide community organization survey.

Consumer Action, a non-profit based in San Francisco,  contacted 5,000 community organizations across the country, compiling information from 549 respondents who reported serious issues with housing discrimination. The disabled, families with children, and immigrants are frequently denied access to certain neighborhoods and face an onerous process in seeking justice. Cultural barriers often leave those who can’t speak English stranded.

Here’s a breakdown of the Community Action survey’s findings:

  • Seven out of 10 Community-based organizations (CBOs) say that housing discrimination is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem for the people they serve.  Significantly, roughly half of CBOs (48 percent) agree that housing discrimination is a “very serious” problem today.
  • Four times CBOs have “seen housing discrimination go up … in the last two years” than those that reported a drop in the same period.
  • About two thirds of CBOs (65) percent say the level of awareness about housing discrimination rights among the individuals they serve is “somewhat low” or “very low.”
  • Among the most common barriers to filing discrimination complaints, as reported by CBOs,  are factors that specifically concern  immigrants,  including: “cultural issues, such as the fear of authorities” (59 percent); “language barriers” (54 percent); and “legal status in the U.S.” (56 percent).
  • Disability (77 percent), race (62 percent) and family status (60 percent) are the top three distinguishing features of individuals seeking help with housing discrimination problems from CBOs.

“That all makes sense to me,” says Benjamin Hill, a civil rights attorney. “These groups are among the most vulnerable in our society. The disabled, immigrants, and/or persons of different nationalities and skin color often face many barriers, including fear of going to the authorities and language barriers.”

“We only know about cases that are formally reported from a government agency or initiation of a civil lawsuit, or community-type NGOs (non-governmental organizations). There’s probably a huge factor of cases that never see the light of day,” he adds. “The marginalization, language barriers, fear of approaching an authority, or lack of knowledge of where to go or where to find help – all those things combine to create a situation where you’re seeing only a fraction of what is going on.”

Ken McEldowney, Executive Director of Consumer Action, said in a press conference and later interview that two-thirds of the responding community organizations reported people were generally unaware of their rights, affecting their standard of living regardless of what housing they can afford.

Attorney Benjamin Hill

“Say there’s someone who’s looking to rent or buy a home, and wants to live in a neighborhood that may be more predominantly white. They want to go there because the crime rates are lower and schools are better, and if they’re denied access because of discrimination, they might wind up living in neighborhoods which are more dangerous, with worse schools, even though they could afford the house in the first neighborhood,” says McEldowney.

Consumer Action found a pattern across the nation, showing that housing discrimination often bars immigrants, people with disabilities and families with children from living in safer, higher-income neighborhoods they could afford, forcing them instead to move into high-crime areas.

“There are several application federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, religion, etc. Most states have similar statues,” says attorney Hill.

Some state governments have divisions of human rights where victims can report discrimination, and Hill says, “HUD – the national Housing and Urban Development office – will review and sometimes investigate some claims. And those are the two administrative avenues available. You have civil rights attorneys like myself who would be able to help you navigate some of those administrative routes.”

However, Hill acknowledges that justice through the system can be too little, too late.

“Generally speaking, it’s very ineffective.”

While victims can turn to community organizations to report discrimination , the damage is often already done. By filing a complaint, says McEldowney, “the benefit is that you wind up getting an agency on your side. But the process can take so long that the person’s found another place to live.”

If the person can’t speak English, the challenges are more daunting and they may fail to seek help at all. And immigrants may have legitimate fears of getting arrested and deported.

“It’s a prickly situation. If you were to lodge a complaint with HUD, they would not, I believe, refer you to ICE or immigration,” says Hill. “On the other hand if you are looking to initiate an action against a former landlord and that landlord has some connection to local authorities, and maybe you live in Arizona where they’re in charge of apparently enforcing immigration laws, it’s not without the realm of possibility there’s some risk.”


Language Barrier

“We were a respondent to the survey, and we gave [Consumer Action] an idea of our experience in Philadelphia,” says John Chin, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. In filing a complaint, “there’s fees involved, there’s paperwork, and unless you know the process you have to rely on the Tenants’ Union Representing Network [a local tenants’ organization] to walk you through the whole process. And you have to deal with hearings – you are dealing with landlords with full pockets and a knowledge of the system. Most of the families we work with are low- to moderate-income families who are being challenged and don’t have the time and resources.”

A non-English speaker from a different culture can’t even read a restaurant menu, let alone understand his legal rights or be able to decipher contracts and leases.

“Ignorance of the occurrence of discrimination is greater in immigrant populations with limited English proficiency.”

Chin says many of the communities he works with also come from cultures inherently distrustful of authority, another hurdle.


A Nationwide Issue

Ken McEldowney, Executive Director of Consumer Action

“Policy can reverse discrimination, and there are opportunities to counter discrimination: financial literacy and home-buying educational workshops,” says Chin.

Consumer Action lists steps for filing housing discrimination complaints at the state and federal level. Ken McEldowney says, “Our network is extremely extensive around the country. It’s [in] virtually all cities regardless of size, and the bulk of rural areas represented by community groups. Every time we do a publication we get orders from every single state in the country.”

However, those not represented and those with limited English may be left with no recourse. “The separate issue is whether or not there are parts of the country where there are community groups that don’t have expertise on housing discrimination – they won’t be able to get the information about what housing discrimination is and how to take steps to file complaint,” he says.


Have you been the victim of housing discrimination? Visit the Civil Rights area on Lawyers.com for more information and to find an attorney in your area who can help you navigate the steps to file a complaint.

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