The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Report: Racial Steering into Segregated Neighborhoods Most Prevalent Form of Housing Discrimination

Feature Story by civilrights.org staff - 4/7/2006

Almost 40 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, many real estate agencies across the country still engage in blatant racial, ethnic and religious discrimination at "egregiously high rates," according to a study released April 5 by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

The study found that real estate agents "racially steered" 87 percent of testers who inquired about purchasing a home. Racial steering, a practice outlawed by the Fair Housing Act, consists of attempting to limit potential homebuyers to neighborhoods where current residents are predominantly of their race.

Nearly 20 percent of African-American and Latino testers were refused appointments or offered very limited service. At one agency in Marietta, Ga., for example, white testers were shown 26 houses while African-American testers were shown none.

Some agencies required African-American and Latino testers, but not White testers, to show proof of pre-approval for a loan before they would be helped.

"Today's racial segregation is not an accident of history," said Shanna L. Smith, NFHA's president and CEO. "Real estate agents are required to take courses on the Fair Housing Act, and they are deeply aware of their responsibilities under the law; however, many agents engage in illegal practices because the likelihood of being caught is so remote."

The study is part of a multi-year follow-up to a 2000 Housing and Urban Development study that had shown an increase in racial steering from 1989 levels. 145 pairs of testers, one white and one Latino or African America, were sent to 73 sales offices in 12 cities. In each pair, the non-white tester claimed to have slightly higher wages, less debt, longer tenure at his/her current job and a higher price range.

In many cases, the study found that the quality of a neighborhood's school district was used as a proxy for the racial composition of a neighborhood. Agents would tell white testers to avoid majority black neighborhoods on the claim that "the schools are bad," even when those schools had high achievement records. The same agents would then market those schools to the non-white testers.

The new report estimates that the 26,092 complaints last year represent less than one percent of 3.7 million violations of the FHA nationwide. "People don't even realize they are being discriminated against," said Nancy Haynes of Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids, an NFHA-affiliated group in Michigan.

These practices have a drastic impact because racial steering lowers the demand for housing in predominantly minority areas. Since real estate is one of the largest sources of household wealth, this devaluation is a significant source of economic inequality.

And the progress of desegregation is slowing, if not reversing. The percentage of blacks who live in neighborhoods with a significant white population has remained unchanged since 1980, according to a 2001 University of Minnesota report. Neighborhoods with 29 percent or more blacks in 1980 were more likely to re-segregate than to remain integrated, according to that study.

"If we are going to change it [housing discrimination and resegregation], we have to have a systemic program in place," said Smith. "I'm proud of the individual accomplishments that organizations have made, but I'm tired of waiting for progress."

The NFHA proposed a plan for periodic assessments of real estate agencies and comprehensive federal enforcement of fair housing laws which will cost about $20 million every three years.

"Everyone is doing what they can with the limited amount of money they have, but we're not doing enough," said Haynes. Voluntary self-testing on the part of real estate agencies, Haynes said, is a promising solution to a problem that has already proven resistant to agent education programs.

Jim Carr of Fannie Mae said the solution to segregated housing is simple: "Let the markets function efficiently by enforcing laws that are already on the books and have been there for forty years."