New rental housing audit turns up little discrimination

New rental housing audit turns up little discrimination

Michele Ellson

The Alamedan misidentified the ethnicity of testers used for an ECHO Housing audit and the numbers of testers employed. The Alamedan regrets the errors.

Discrimination against non-Hispanic renters may be on the decline in some local communities, the results of a newly released audit show, though other audits referenced by the new one showed different results.

For its 2011-2012 audit, ECHO Housing had Hispanic and non-Hispanic testers call 65 landlords in Alameda and several other cities to see who received a return call. Just four of the Hispanic callers inquiring about rentals failed to receive a return call in instances where non-Hispanic testers got a call back; in six cases, the Hispanic callers received a return call when non-Hispanic callers did not, which the audit said could be a sign of reverse discrimination.

“The 2011-2012 national origin audit testing represented the lowest amount of discrimination in ECHO’s history of conducting audits,” the 12-page audit said.

A bigger issue, it said, was customer service: In nearly half of the tests, neither of the testers got a call back.

“We encourage agents, managers and landlords to provide better customer service to prospective tenants who call inquiring about available rental properties by promptly returning phone calls,” it said.

In Alameda, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic callers received the same treatment in seven of 10 calls to landlords and property managers: Neither got a call back. In one case, the Hispanic tester failed to get a call back while another, the non-Hispanic caller was the one who wasn’t called back. In one other case, the Hispanic tester received a live person, while the non-Hispanic caller received a return call.

Other cities included in the testing included Cupertino, Hayward, Livermore, San Leandro, Union City and Walnut Creek, along with Santa Clara County.

ECHO conducts an annual audit of rental properties in Bay Area cities to ensure that property owners are abiding by fair housing laws. Discriminating against potential renters or homeowners based on race or national origin is illegal.

A decade ago, ECHO became one of the first housing organizations in the country to take a “voice identification” discrimination case to court after determining that someone was being denied information about a rental property because of their race. The fair housing organization conducted a similar audit after a black man complained he wasn’t getting return calls in which they determined that black testers weren’t receiving return calls while white testers got calls back.

A Stanford-based linguistics professor working with the private attorney who received the call results determined that most of the time, people could accurately determine the race and ethnicity of callers based on their voice.

For this audit, ECHO used Hispanic female testers with a discernable accent and other testers without an accent.

Properties were selected for the audit off of Craigslist and other real estate listing websites and from properties with “For Rent” signs in their windows. Property owners who appeared to discriminate against callers get the results of the audit and an offer for more education on fair housing laws.

“Slight differences in what prospective renters are told can have grave consequences if a fair housing complaint is filed against that agent,” the audit said.

While ECHO’s audit uncovered little apparent discrimination against callers based on national origin, it references other, similar audits that uncovered discrimination against black testers who spoke to a live agent about rental properties. In the majority of those cases, ECHO’s audit said, black testers didn’t get the same information as white testers and were quoted higher rents.

A 2011 “voice identification” audit conducted in Solano County by Fair Housing of Marin in which callers talked to live agents about rental listings found at least some differential treatment favoring white testers over black testers in 60 percent of the 40 tests conducted, with white testers often being quoted better terms and more availability. The fair housing group has conducted similar audits in Marin, Sonoma and Contra Costa counties, with their results showing discrimination increasing over the years the audits were conducted.

ECHO’s results come amidst surging residential rents, particularly in the Bay Area, according to a host of real estate information sites, and dwindling availability.

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