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Portland housing outcry failed to understand complexity of discrimination enforcement, says HUD spokesman

This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. to add further comments from HUD.

The Fair Housing Council of Oregon recently published its audit of Portland for the city’s Housing Bureau which revealed 64 percent of black and Latino renters in the stalwart liberal city were discriminated against when inquiring of available units. Following the release, an outcry that cut across party lines cascaded down the state’s media pipelines — and the animus wasn’t all aimed at the disturbing results.

Caught in the crossroads were city officials who were bound by administrative procedure to assess the results and leave all options on the table. To fair housing experts, that meant considering what action to take against the offenders, which can range from mediation and education on fair housing laws to fines and civil suits. Leland Jones, a spokesperson for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the government agency commissioned by Congress to enforce fair house laws and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, told The American Independent, “[City Commissioner Nick Fish] is doing what he is supposed to be doing. He’s surveyed the landscape.”

Fish told the Oregonian he was “outraged by the results,” but parried questions whether he would go after the violating landlords and leasing agents named in the study. Fisk said: “That’s not the right question. The intent is to do a balanced approach. I have concluded that the best approach is to look at changes to the system and not just individual remedies.”

That response did not sit well with legislators and fair housing advocates. Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance told the Oregonian, “I find it unconscionable for a city to supply the money for the audit and then not enforce the law.”

A strongly-worded letter with the signatures of the 12-member Republican Senate Caucus, currently in the minority, was made public last Thursday. The letter read (PDF), “We, the Senate Republican Caucus, are asking that you prioritize enforcement of these statutes, citing, and where appropriate, prosecuting individuals who violate the civil rights of another.”

In response, Fish wrote a letter to leading Senate Republican Jackie Winters and the Republican delegation last Friday, which read in part, “Last week, I announced that Portland would pursue a dual track to combat discrimination in housing: enforcement of the law coupled with beefed-up education and outreach to renters and landlords. In the weeks ahead, I will announce an action plan, developed with key community and government partners, to combat bias in rental housing.”

On Wednesday, Fish’s office sent letters to the offices of 26 apartment buildings that were listed in the report as sites of discrimination; the addresses were also released (PDF) to the public. The Portland Housing Bureau, which Fish oversees, intends on turning over the results of the audit to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, the state’s labor department that aims to “protect employment rights, advance employment opportunities, and protect access to housing and public accommodations free from discrimination.”

To Jones of HUD, the initial media coverage poorly explained why Portland was suddenly faced with reports of discrimination. “the coverage should’ve noted that why Protland knows it has troubling numbers is because of the process, the analysis of impediments to fair housing, which conducted the tests which reported the troubling numbers,” Jones said.

The Oregonian reported the audit was commissioned by the city to satisfy the terms the federal government places on the city for accepting grants toward community development and fair housing, but Jones chided onlookers who asked why the analysis “isn’t doing anything.”

“Commissioner Fish is preparing recommendations, using all tools available, meaning enforcement and education,” Jones says.

HUD is watching how the city is responding to the audit’s findings. If the agency believes local authorities shirked enforcement, HUD can request the details of the report be passed over to its investigators. However, Jones did not criticize the city’s handling since news of the audit became public.

Fair Housing Council of Oregon (FHCO), the organization that conducted the audits, receives money from HUD to function as a watch group in the state. HUD runs two programs, the Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) and Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FIHP) that contract organizations like FHCO to investigate claims of discrimination and provide education to tenants and landlords on fair housing rights.

The framework of an audit — wherein an investigator who is Caucasian or representative of the “majority” population is sent to landlords and leasing agents to compare treatment they gave to investigators who are visibly of a “protected class” — is a reliable mechanism for HUD and other housing agencies out to uncover discrimination. Sometimes the results of an audit warrant greater scrutiny, and a second wave of investigations follow. That thoroughness is to protect HUD or the U.S. Justice Department, which can represent the agency in civil suits in federal courts, from judges who are willing to throw out a case if the methodology used by the government is not sound.

The control group is not always white. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in 2006 against developer Donald Sterling, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, and Korean landlords in Los Angeles were for excluding non-Koreans from the rental process. Investigators posed as Koreans and compared their treatment to investigators acting as prospective renters of a different background.

Most penalties in fair housing are civil, which typically means a fine. However, if the discriminatory act also involves the use of force or a threat to use force to willfully injure or intimidate, imprisonment can result in addition to fines.

Jones says the agency has a stark reminder when education and outreach is possible: “We remind people housing discrimination is against the law.”

The enforcement of fair housing, therefore, is crucial to HUD’s mission of paring back instances of preferential treatment based on sex, race and background, he added. “Societies follow laws only if jurisdictions enforce them.”

UPDATE, 12:45 p.m.: Via an email to TAI, HUD Spokesperson Leland Jones updates his view of Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish’s decision to make public the violating rental properties that were listed in the Fair Housing Council of Oregon audit: “As was the case in the City’s decision to contract with the [FHCO] to conduct a ‘test’ in advance of the City’s revision of its Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing and the association action plan, the City’s release yesterday of the list – as well as the sending of letters to landlords and owners – reflects the City’s commitment to fulfilling its obligations under the Act.”

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