A half century after Fair Housing Act: ‘We are segregated’

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Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968. Fifty years later, discriminatory lending and rental practices persist, as the Connecticut Fair Housing Center discovered sending fair-housing testers out to pose as renters or homebuyers over three years ending in 2015. 

Federal law notwithstanding, whites had a demonstrably easier time with landlords and lenders. 

Our Sunday conversation is with Erin Kemple, an attorney who lives in an integrated Hartford neighborhood and is executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

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Fifty years after passage of the Fair Housing Act, why are institutions like the Connecticut Fair Housing Center still necessary?

The Fair Housing Act was passed to do two things: One was to outlaw discrimination, and the second was to promote integration. And it’s the promoting integration part that we have not made much headway in. If you look at the statistics, Connecticut is one of the most segregated areas in the country. Bridgeport is number four. When you look at white-Latino segregation, Hartford’s number seven. And all of Connecticut ranks in the top 10 percent for white-black segregation.

Why is that?

Part of it is the 169 towns system, each with its own zoning ordinances. And zoning has really had a huge effect on keeping people who don’t currently live there out. There are still several dozen towns which don’t zone for multi-family housing. Multi-family housing is the easiest way and the cheapest way to do affordable housing. In Connecticut, people of color and families with children and people who are disabled, all of whom are protected under the fair housing laws, need affordable housing. And so if you don’t have affordable housing in your town, then you’re not going to be that well integrated.

I think the popular view is redlining — banks refusing to lend in urban areas — was something of the past. How has it changed? Has it grown more subtle?

Redlining started in the 1930s, and the actual maps red-lined those areas, and we don’t have those anymore. That’s very true. We have outlawed it. But what we do have is individual banks and lenders making decisions that have the same effect. And so what will happen is that banks are allowed to define their own lending areas. So they will define their lending area as Glastonbury, Wethersfield, West Hartford and completely do a U around Hartford.

And then when you go into the bank, the bank will say, ‘No, we don’t lend in those areas, because it’s not within our lending area.’ In addition to that, one of the things that we found through fair housing testing is that even when banks define their lending areas, they have the discretion to go outside their lending area. We have found through fair housing testing that banks will go outside their lending areas if the area is white, but not if the majority are people of color.

So that quickly gets us to the question of intent. Banks from time to time say there are certain areas that are riskier to lend, and they avoid them for business reasons. What are your thoughts?

If it was just about risk factors, then the West End of Hartford would have lending on par with West Hartford. And we don’t see that. We see the redlining going on throughout the city of Hartford or Bridgeport or New Haven or New London.

We have done a study, and it’s on our website, that shows that African-Americans who are high income, African-Americans making over $170,000 a year, are denied mortgages at twice the rate of whites making less than $70,000 dollars a year. So it’s not just about the money. And certainly when we do fair-housing testing, it’s not just about the numbers, and it’s not just about the money. We’re finding consistently that the African-Americans are not quoted the same mortgage rates as white people. They’re not coached in the same way.

The Connecticut Fair Housing Center report.

When I went to buy a house, the loan officers were coaching me. ‘Well, you know you have one 30-day late [bill], and you have another 60-day late, but if you wait another month then those are going to be off [your report] and your credit score is going to be better. That kind of coaching is not going on as far as we can see. And African-Americans and Latinos are not being encouraged in the same way as whites. 

How so? 

So we did some testing where we just had people walk into a bank branch. It was in an all-white neighborhood. A Latina says, ‘I’m on my lunch hour. I just need some information about what kinds of loans you have. Do you have anything in writing?’

 ‘No, we don’t do loans in this branch. You need to go to this other branch. We don’t have any information here.’

A white tester goes in about a half hour later. They have written information. They have offered to call a loan officer so that she can set up an appointment, and they are encouraging her.

And maybe that’s not intentional, and maybe that’s working on assumptions by the loan officers, but no one is telling the loan officers, ‘Here’s our procedure. Every time someone walks in the door, this is what you do. You treat people the same.’

And so whether or not it’s intentional, they are in fact not lending to people of color. 

So what do you do with this information? 

It depends. Sometimes we have complaints, and frankly most of our complaints are about rentals, number one, because more people who rent move. And number two because it’s easier to see. Landlords tend to be upfront. ‘I’m not renting to you, because they don’t rent to people with disabilities.’ ‘I’m not renting to you, because I don’t want to rent to people on Section 8 housing.’

Buying a house is much more subtle. People are often steered, and they don’t know it. And so then it is up to us as an organization to decide if we’re going to bring a case against an individual Realtor or Realtor’s office.

How much of a pattern do you have to show to bring a successful case? 

In a rental case it’s easier to show a pattern, in part, because we can do fair-housing testing and we can see what the procedures are that the landlord is or is not following.

I think it’s more difficult in a house. When you’re buying a house or getting a mortgage, [a tester] cannot put in an application for a mortgage, because you are required by law to give accurate information.

Has the Web changed this with people shopping on line?

It has not helped at all. People with racially identifiable names are being denied mortgages even when they go online until there’s no face-to-face interaction at all.

A bill awaiting action in the state House of Representatives would strike an ambiguous portion of state law that requires zoning regulations be made with consideration as to ‘the character of the district.’  Is that code for something?

One of the things over the years that has been used as code for ‘don’t move here if you’re white’ is ‘it’s a changing neighborhood.’ And when you ask Realtors, and I have asked Realtors, what does it mean to be a changing neighborhood, the answer is, ‘Well, that people aren’t keeping their house up as much. People aren’t doing as much to improve their houses.’ It’s always about who is moving in.

The other thing that we hear about is the character of the neighborhood. We rarely hear that we don’t want affordable housing for people who are elderly. Eighty-six percent of the people over 65 in Connecticut are white. We always hear we don’t want to have affordable housing for families. Something like 65 percent of the people under the age of 18 are are people of color. That’s going to change the character of the neighborhood. Elderly people don’t change the character of the neighborhood. They’re majority white.

What tools does Connecticut need to make inroads in housing affordability and integration?

We are segregated. We have housing, especially affordable housing, placed where it is because of decisions that were made by the government, by local governments, federal and state governments. So they are the ones that have to fix this, and this is why the zoning [legislation] that the governor was talking about [Wednesday at a celebration of the 50th anniversary] is so important. It is putting the onus back on the cities and the towns to open up their communities to people other than the people who have always lived there or who live there now.

There’s only so far that individuals can take things. An individual organization like mine can advocate and can represent people who have had individual acts of discrimination against them, and we can go after federal or state local actors and governments who have violated the law in specific ways. But in terms of systemic change, changing the way Connecticut organizes itself and allows people to live, that is something that has to come from the state and local government as well as federal. And that is why I think there’s hope for Connecticut.

From a CT Fair Housing Center report: Two of every three persons of color in Connecticut live in just 15 of the state’s 169 municipalities.

Certainly, the Department of Housing has taken that on and has recognized that that’s important. So has the governor by standing up and not just saying, ‘Yay, we have the Fair Housing Act,’ but is actually saying affirmatively furthering fair housing is important. I think those are important steps. We have a long way to go. We have made some strides to integrating our schools.

We have made almost no strides toward integrating our neighborhoods. And frankly if we integrated our neighborhoods we would not be talking about busing and we would not be having fights about whether or not our schools were integrated. 

It seems as though housing discrimination is akin to a chronic illness — something that you try to keep in check, but I’m not sure you’re moving toward a cure. Is that accurate?

Goodness, I hope that’s not true. Well, you know I’m a warrior, and I do not believe hearts and minds can be changed. I believe you can change behavior, but you can’t change hearts and minds. 

There are other people who say ‘until we change hearts and minds we’re not going to have true integration.’ I think that the analogy that you give is apt in some ways and not in others. So I think that a chronic illness is we haven’t figured out exactly what buttons to push in order to fix this. I think we know a lot of the buttons to push here, but I actually do think that there lacks a lot of political and individual will to change it.

And I think one of the reasons that we have not made strides on housing integration is because it’s where people live. And people are willing to go to work and go to school and contend with people who are different, but they come home they do not want that at all. And then having said that, I would also say that’s mainly true for people who have money. People who don’t have money have been living in integrated communities for a very, very long time. 

How can this be changed?

I was just speaking on a panel in Springfield and someone said, ‘So you know you’ve laid out all of these problems. What do you suggest we do to fix them?’ And I said, ‘Frankly, it’s a very unpopular sentiment, but I’m going to tell you to litigate, because money is what matters in real estate.’

People do not go into real estate either giving mortgages or loans or renting housing out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s because of money, and money is the currency and literally the currency of what real estate is about.

There’s litigation that deals with specific injuries to specific people and then there’s litigation that tries to make a systemic change. Is there any litigation going on now that is in the latter category?

We have brought several cases over the years that are in the latter category. A lot of the housing authorities in cities and towns in Connecticut have residency preferences, so in order to get into their public housing or subsidized housing or affordable housing, you have to be a resident or have lived there within the last five years or be related to someone who lives there.

And if it’s a place that’s in one of the cases that we had there were towns in the area that were covered by this housing authority that were 98 percent white or places that had no percentage of people of color –you know, maybe one or two people of color live there but no percentage. And so we brought cases and those residency preferences have been struck down.

And every time I’m asked to talk in a housing authority event or something like that, I hear, ‘She’s the one. We can’t have a residency preference anymore because of her.’ And so I know that that’s making it change there.

There’s a case going on in Houston right now with regard to how HUD funded the recovery from Hurricane Harvey out there. And so that’s something we did a good job with Sandy. We did a good job of making that money available without regard to race or national origin or the neighborhoods. 

When you say ‘we,’ who are you talking about? 

The state of Connecticut. I’ll give the state of Connecticut a lot of credit. They asked our opinion. They wanted us to tell them what we’re doing right, tell us what we’re doing wrong, and they do come to us.

So one of the things that we have seen on disability discrimination is that a lot of housing providers that are getting funding from the state or from CHFA [Connecticut Housing Finance Authority] have for a long time had a requirement that you had to be able to prove you could live independently. Who knew what that really meant? 

But it certainly was discouraging to people who were disabled, and it was outright discriminatory when it was applied, because people would make the decision you’re not able to live independently. And we’ve brought lawsuits on that, and CHFA now requires that people take that out of their tenant screening requirement. So there has been systemic work. But I think you’re right that there’s a lot more systemic work that needs to be done, especially in the lending area. 

At the press conference the other day marking the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, there was a mention of compliance reviews conducted once every five years. How does that work?

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A celebration last week of the 50th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act. From left, Sen. George Logan, Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Rep. Roland Lemar.

Oh, that’s an interesting question. A requirement to affirmatively further fair housing has been part of the Fair Housing Act since it was passed.

That’s the rule that says you have to overcome past decisions in order to promote integration. No one ever knew what it meant. So for a while HUD was requiring that you do this thing called an Analysis of Impediments to fair housing choice. But it didn’t tell you how to do it, and it didn’t tell you what to do.

So in 2015, HUD actually got serious and said we better figure out, we better tell people how to do that. So they said we’re gonna give you all of that and the AI, as it was called, had to be done every five years, and if you didn’t do it HUD would shake its finger at you and threaten to take away your funding. But really there was not much. 

So, it got better in 2015?

So in 2015 HUD promulgated the regulation and said throw out this whole AI thing that no one knows what to do with. You have to do an analysis of where people are currently living. What kinds of housing needs they have. And we’re going to give you all the data. So we’re going to give you the data that shows things like the percentage of people of color and the percentage of people who are white and the ages and so forth. And then you have to write a report that encompasses all of this and says how you can use your money that we give you to do this.

In January of this year HUD withdrew that regulation. And so we’re now back to the situation where nobody knows what to do in order to affirmatively further fair housing. 

Read Connecticut’s most recent Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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