Try to imagine going into an apartment complex rental office and getting the nagging suspicion that you're being discriminated against by the person behind the desk. Short of that person telling you flat out that they don't like the color of your skin, your disability, your sexual orientation, the fact that you have children, or the cut of your jib, how hard would it be to prove that you'd been subject to willful bias instead of the victim of just another clerk having a bad day?
A private organization is at work in Central Arkansas doing housing discrimination testing to try and prove what would normally seem like the unprovable: patterns of ongoing rental discrimination that can be so subtle that most renters might miss them. They've already made complaints against two apartment owners — one on an allegation of discrimination against Latinos, another for allegedly discriminating against the deaf or hard of hearing — and say there are more in the works.
Morgan Williams is with the National Fair Housing Alliance, a private non-profit that does housing and mortgage-lending discrimination testing all over the country. Williams said that the NFHA decided to do discrimination testing in Little Rock because it's one of the major metropolitan areas in the U.S. that has no full-service private fair housing organization. The investigation in Little Rock is being funded by a three-year private enforcement initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant, funded February 2012 through January 2015, allows the NFHA to do housing and bank-lending bias investigations in Greater Little Rock, Charleston, S.C., and three other cities across the United States.
Williams said that at the start of the process, NFHA reached out to Central Arkansas nonprofits, faith-based groups and educational institutions to confer with them about alleged housing and banking discrimination in the Little Rock area. They also recruited testers from those groups. The discussions led to the development of a series of ongoing investigations in the Little Rock area, as well as attempts to identify apartment complexes that may violate the disabled-access requirements of the Fair Housing Act.
"Generally speaking, our investigations in Little Rock have identified national origin, disability, familial status and sex-based discrimination that appears to violate the Fair Housing Act," Williams said. "We are also aware of anecdotal evidence about racial discrimination." Other NFHA investigations of alleged discrimination on the basis of national origin, disability, and race are ongoing in the area, Williams said.
To date, NFHA has filed two complaints with HUD and the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission against apartment complex owners in Little Rock and North Little Rock. The first, filed in October 2013, alleges discrimination against Latinos by the Waterford Apartments on Green Mountain Drive in Little Rock. The second, filed in January of this year, alleges discrimination on the basis of testers being deaf or hard-of-hearing at Lakewood Hills Apartment Homes on McCain Boulevard in North Little Rock. Both of those investigations were conducted by phone, with the NFHA having testers call in over the course of several months to try and receive a rental application or to inquire about specials or apartment availability.
"In the case of the Waterford," Williams said, "it was a pattern in which the Latino tester was not getting a returned phone call or not getting an application. If you're a renter in Little Rock, and you're Latino, you don't know. You don't know if that's just bad service, or if it's an instance of discrimination. What the testing bears out is that time and time again, the Latino didn't get the application, and the white [tester] got the application immediately after calling."