On Monday, Seattle's Office of Civil Rights [SOCR] announced that it would be charging 23 landlords with housing discrimination. The office conducted 97 tests with people posing as prospective renters in order to suss out whether landlords were treating applicants differently. The results were dismal, but not surprising: More than 30 percent of those tests showed evidence of different treatment based on familial status, two-thirds showed evidence of different treatment because of disability, and another two-thirds revealed different treatment if the applicant was using a Section 8 housing voucher.
"I think the findings in Seattle are consistent with other findings," Courtney Joslin, a professor of law at the University of California-Davis, said. "In terms of the very recently filed complaints with [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development] for housing discrimination, disability is a leader. Fifty percent of complaints are on disability, a third are on race, and between 30 and 15 percent—it ranges—are on the basis of familial status."
In the city's press release, the Office of Civil Rights noted that "some landlords provided less information about rental units to testers who said they had children then they did to testers who indicated they did not have children." A follow-up with the city showed that the tester profile for familial status was more specific: a single mom with a six-year-old son.
Discrimination against single moms can say a lot about a society's biases, even in "progressive" Seattle. Back when Congress was evaluating the Fair Housing Amendments Act in 1988, there was some evidence that parties involved in the housing market were using familial status as a cover to keep families of color out of certain neighborhoods, Joslin said.
"So part of the Congressional intent, and part of what Congress was trying to get at, was forms of race discrimination that didn't discriminate on the basis of race," Joslin said.
In 2014, SOCR conducted a similar series of housing discrimination tests that looked at race specifically, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity. More than two-thirds of the tests showed evidence for discrimination on the basis of each of the above.
SOCR didn't look at test profiles that combined characteristics of protected classes, but it stands to reason that people who belong to multiple protected classes face more housing discrimination, SOCR spokesperson Elliott Bronstein said. Low-income, disabled, single moms in this case likely face some of the highest barriers in finding a place to live in a city that's already facing a steep housing shortage.
"This information is crushing, but we know how hard it is—if you're low-income anybody, it's hard to rent in Seattle," Bronstein said. "So if you're a low-income single parent and you've got one or more children, you're going to need something larger than a studio, and that means whatever you're looking for is going to be costing more. It's going to be extremely difficult to rent in Seattle."
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