Fighting discrimination in online housing ads

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the ACLU are going after discriminatory online housing listings:

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed charges against social media giant Facebook on Thursday, alleging that its advertising platform violates the Fair Housing Act by allowing lenders and realtors to target Facebook users on the basis of race, gender, religion, familial status, disability, and national origin.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

According to Axios, HUD and Facebook were close to a settlement. Citing anonymous sources, the Axios report says the decision to file charges could be motivated by a desire to appear on the offensive on housing discrimination prior to Carson’s meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week.

The charges are somewhat surprising as Facebook just settled five similar cases with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week. Under the settlement, the company agreed to create a separate advertising portal for real estate listings where advertisers’ options for targeting are limited. Facebook also settled a housing discrimination case with the state of Washington last summer.

The features that make online advertising so attractive – the ability to target particular consumers rather than addressing larger populations – do not work so well in the real estate field where housing is supposed to be available to all.

This reminds me of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists suggest the necessary rules are in place to combat housing issues but the political will is lacking. If the online realm is now indeed where a lot of housing is rented or sold, then discrimination in online listings needs to be addressed when it does occur.

Add these online occurrences to the ongoing findings of audit tests suggesting differential treatment and there is likely plenty of housing discrimination still to battle. While the 1968 Housing Act banned discrimination on the basis of “refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion, or national origin,” many American communities – including the suburbs on the basis of race and class – are what they are today because of exclusion.

A quick guide to the Fair Housing Act

Here is an overview of the Fair Housing Act which was passed in 1968. An excerpt from my favorite section of the guide:

Did it work?

While the Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal in practice, in reality, significant degrees of segregation still exist across much of the country. According to a 2012 study by the American Constitution Society, “fair housing in the United States remains a pressing civil rights issue.”

Despite the passage of the law, a generation of politicians from both parties have failed to fully enforce the law, as documented in a lengthy ProPublica series. There are also significant social and economic costs to continued segregation: A recent study showed that Chicago segregation costs residents $4.4 billion every year in potential earnings.

The Obama administration made a handful of moves in its final years to address this historic inequality. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, introduced in 2015, asks cities to do more to protect the non-discrimination policies enshrined in the Fair Housing Act.

In other words, the move to make illegal housing discrimination has not exactly led to the end of residential segregation. The guide suggests earlier that “the act is meant to create a unitary housing market, where only your financial resources, not your background, can prevent you from renting or purchasing a home.” However, because financial resources are so closely tied to other dimensions of social groups – including race and gender – we wouldn’t exactly have a level playing field even if there was no discrimination at all present.

On one hand, we might think that this 1968 legislation was a big step forward. It is one thing to acknowledge equal rights for a certain group but another to allow the possibility that they might live next door. On the other hand, I’m not sure there has been much advancement beyond this act and there is very little current discussion about seeing housing as a right or even seriously addressing a lack of affordable housing.

More on “Obama wants to reengineer your neighborhood”

Commenting on HUD’s plans to introduce more poorer residents into wealthier communities, a conservative argues this is an assault on the ability to sort by social class:

This is not about blocking housing discrimination, which has been illegal since 1968. It is unlawful for someone to deny you a loan or prevent you from buying a home because of your race, creed or color. Socioeconomic status is — and ought to be — another matter. If you want to buy a nice house in the suburbs, you have to be able to afford it. Apparently, Obama thinks that’s unfair discrimination by the “holders of capital.”

Putting decisions about how local communities are run in the hands of federal bureaucrats is an assault on freedom. Local autonomy is essential to liberty. As Milton Friedman put it in “Capitalism and Freedom,” “If I don’t like what my local community does, be it in sewage disposal, zoning or schools, I can move to another local community. .?.?. If I don’t like what my state does, I can move to another. If I do not like what Washington imposes, I have few alternatives in this world of jealous nations.” Washington has no business imposing decisions about zoning and housing policies on thousands of local communities…

Having Washington micromanage the housing and zoning policies of thousands of local communities is not going to change this. The answer is not to force local governments to build affordable housing in affluent communities. The answer is to restore upward mobility in the United States so that more people can afford housing in affluent communities.

Free markets can solve residential segregation, right? Except this simply hasn’t worked over time in the United States. The end of the argument in this article suggests the Obama administration has not been good for poorer Americans. This may be the case but there aren’t many (or any?) magic free trade eras in American history where people of different races and backgrounds could move wherever they wanted even when in the same social class. For example, research in recent years continues to suggests that blacks and Latinos who have the same or similar socioeconomic status as whites tend to live in poorer neighborhoods. Urban renewal – when the government forces residents out of poorer neighborhoods for newer development projects usually benefiting wealthier people – may not work but neither would a completely unfettered market.

Additionally, race and ethnicity are intimately tied to social class in the United States. To suggest that we can easily not discriminate by race but social class is something different ignores the realities of how these key life factors have worked together for hundreds of years.

Don’t forget the influence of discriminatory housing policies on the United States

As part of a larger argument for reparations for slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights the long-lasting effects of discriminatory housing policies and residential segregation:

The oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, The GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits “that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.”…

Whereas shortly before the New Deal, a typical mortgage required a large down payment and full repayment within about 10 years, the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1933 and then the Federal Housing Administration the following year allowed banks to offer loans requiring no more than 10 percent down, amortized over 20 to 30 years. “Without federal intervention in the housing market, massive suburbanization would have been impossible,” writes Thomas J. Sugrue, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “In 1930, only 30 percent of Americans owned their own homes; by 1960, more than 60 percent were home owners. Home ownership became an emblem of American citizenship.”

That emblem was not to be awarded to blacks. The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle. As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics warned that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” A 1943 brochure specified that such potential undesirables might include madams, bootleggers, gangsters—and “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.”

The federal government concurred. It was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods.

“For perhaps the first time, the federal government embraced the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace,” the historian Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in his 1985 book, Crabgrass Frontier, a history of suburbanization. “Previously, prejudices were personalized and individualized; FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy. Whole areas of cities were declared ineligible for loan guarantees.” Redlining was not officially outlawed until 1968, by the Fair Housing Act. By then the damage was done—and reports of redlining by banks have continued.

Such policies were officially repealed in the 1968 Housing Act but much damage was done: whites were already leaving for the suburbs in droves, poor urban neighborhoods were suffering, and patterns were being formed that would endure for decades. See the next section of the article which discusses how this played out in Chicago.

The next step in this discussion is to then move to the economic discrimination that is more prevalent today. Even as the discriminatory policies continued through the 1950s and 1960s, whites were changing their justifications from race-based arguments to class-based arguments. See the book Colored Property which chronicles this transition and much of the underlying conversation about residential segregation today.

Claim that Bank of America takes better care of foreclosed properties in white neighborhoods than in minority neighborhoods

A new report from the National Fair Housing Alliance argues Bank of America has taken better care of foreclosed properties in white neighborhoods:

A year ago, the alliance and several of its member organizations filed a complaint against the bank with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, arguing that the bank had violated the federal Fair Housing Act by neglecting foreclosed properties in minority communities in Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Dayton and Washington, D.C. Today, the groups amended their complaint with a stack of evidence – in maps, data, and photos – showing that the problem has persisted in each of those cities, while documenting it anew in Memphis, Denver, Las Vegas, Tucson and Philadelphia.

In total, housing advocates have now identified the problem in 18 metropolitan areas, across 621 Bank of America properties…

The sample size in each city varied, from about a dozen properties to more than 44 of them in Denver. But across all of the cities, homes in minority communities were two times more likely than those in predominantly white areas to have more than 10 maintenance or marketing problems. In Denver, homes in minority neighborhoods were 9.3 times more likely to have a broken door or lock. In Las Vegas, they were 4.5 times more likely to have damaged windows. In Philadelphia, they’re twice as likely to have accumulated substantial amounts of trash, relative to homes in white neighborhoods in the same market.

The pattern suggests yet another way that subtle housing discrimination may further handicap the ability of minority communities to recover from the housing crisis (or, put another way, this suggests why the effects of the recession will linger in minority communities for much longer). Federal fair housing law prohibits actions (or attempts at action) that “perpetuate, or tend to perpetuate, segregated housing patterns,” or that obstruct the choices in a community or neighborhood. It’s not hard to envision how these neglected homes could wind up doing just that.

Bank of America responded that the methodology of the study was flawed and that some of the homes in more disrepair were the responsibility of other entities.

More broadly, this suggests a potential new line of research questions about how banks and financial institutions respond after an economic crisis and whether this is stratified by race and class. How have banks made decisions regarding which foreclosed properties to improve or leave to others? Have they primarily worked with more valuable pieces of property, ones that might be found more often in middle to upper class neighborhoods? Is there also more political pressure (from local homeowners to municipalities) to address these more expensive homes or places with higher property values? It also seems like the analysis here would benefit by looking at the actions of multiple mortgage holders to see if there is a pattern across institutions.

New HUD study shows minorities continue to be shown fewer homes, apartments

A new HUD audit study shows that compared to whites, minorities are given less access to homes and apartments:

Compared with white homebuyers, blacks who inquire about homes listed for sale are made aware of about 17 percent fewer homes and are shown 18 percent fewer ones. Asians are told about 15 percent fewer units and are shown 19 percent fewer properties. Researchers are unsure why Hispanic buyers were treated more equitably than other minority populations.

Among renters, all minority groups found out about fewer choices than did white consumers. Hispanic testers who contacted agents about advertised rental units learned about 12 percent fewer units available and were shown 7 percent fewer than white renters saw. Black renters learned about 11 percent fewer units and saw 4 percent fewer available rentals, while Asians were told about 10 percent fewer available rentals and shown 7 percent fewer units.

In the Chicago area, researchers found that African-American and white renters got equal access to information and showings of apartments, but African-Americans were less likely than white consumers to see at least one home that had no problems.

Blacks also were more likely than whites to be told that a credit check had to be performed and that particular rental units carried fees. They also were quoted higher fees than the ones quoted to white testers. On average, the extra fees quoted to blacks put the first-year cost of securing a rental unit at $350 more than the cost for white renters.

Hispanic testers in Chicago reported that they heard comments about their credit standing more often than the white testers, and the extra payments quoted to them were $131 more than white testers’.

As the HUD Secretary notes, these actions are less obvious than the redlining, blockbusting, and restrictive covenants of the early 1900s but they still lead to similar outcomes. This kind of study with pairs having the same qualifications and traits except for their race/ethnicity has been conducted for several decades with similar results: whites consistently have better access to housing options. Limiting access to housing options like this is illegal but happens regularly both in cities and suburbs. And housing and patterns of residential segregation is related to all sorts of other important life chances including job opportunities, schools, community resources and services, and social networks.

This article fails to mention what can be done about such discriminatory practices. Housing providers and those in real estate can be sued. However, this takes place on a case by case basis and thus it can take a while to crack down on a large number of offenders.

Sociologist James Loewen continues to educate about sundown towns

Sociologist James Loewen has made a career of instructing Americans about the real racial history of the country. He continues to educate people about his findings laid out in Sundown Towns:

By not parrying the South’s attempts to further racism, the North placated the South. In fact, the South began building memorials because, in philosophy, they did win the Civil War. One reason northern states withdrew their efforts was the fact that they were already ridden with Sundown towns, especially in the Midwest. As stated before, Sundown towns gained their reputation from attempting to drive out their black population by dark.

“More than half of towns in the Midwest were Sundown towns,” Loewen said.

In fact, the reputation of former Dearborn mayor Orville L. Hubbard, whose statue stands in front of City Hall, comes from his dedication to maintaining a Sundown Town in Dearborn.

Remnants of Sundown Towns in Detroit are observable today in former residences such as the Orsel McGhee household located at 4626 Seebaldt Ave. The Orsel Mc-Ghees were an African-America family that attempted to moved into a segregated, white neighborhood of Detroit in 1944 but were forced to move after a lawsuit was brought against them.

Another case was the Ossian Sweet case, where Sweet, a black doctor, attempted to defend his home against a white mob that sought to drive him out of a white segregated community on Sept. 9, 1925. A 1985 Dearborn ordinance, passed by an overwhelming white majority vote, made city parks off-limits to non-residents, a measure created to prevent black would-be homeowners from moving in. Loewen also spoke about Anna, Ill., circa 1909. White residents, with the help of local government officials, began to force out blacks and Anna became an acronym for “Ain’t no N Allowed.”

One fairly recent, yet baffling, example that Loewen presented was the case of Villa Grove, Ill. Until 1999, Villa Grove sounded a siren every day at 6 p.m. to warn blacks to leave the city. Similar problems were prevalent in the 1970s despite the Supreme Court’s “Shelley v. Kraemer” ruling stating that state courts could not enforce a restrictive covenant. In this context, a restrictive covenant is a clause in a deed that limits to whom a property can be leased or sold.

Not too many communities are interested in sharing these parts of their history. Loewen’s findings are all the more shocking when he makes clear that this was common across northern communities, places that many Americans learn and think were more open to blacks than Southern communities.

Even though sundown towns are no longer with us, sociologists argue these more formal rules have been replaced by more informal means of keeping minorities and lower class residents out of suburbs. One common technique is exclusionary zoning, a practice where communities only allow larger and more expensive homes to be built. Without much affordable housing, employees in lower income jobs, ranging from municipal workers to retail and service jobs, often cannot live near their suburban jobs and then must also maintain a car, an expensive proposition in itself.