Housing Discrimination Leading To Foreclosures?

Unfair housing practices may be deepening the foreclosure crisis, according to a new report by The National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Commission member Myron Orfield is joined by Wade Henderson, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, to explain the findings.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, many workers are being asked to think about new approaches to their jobs in the wake of new circumstances. Why not teachers? We talk with the new head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, in just a few minutes. But first, housing and equal opportunity.

Forty years ago, lawmakers passed the Fair Housing Act in an effort to end longstanding bias in the rent and sale of housing. Now, as the foreclosure crisis deepens, the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity is releasing a new report saying that unfair housing practices continue and may be contributing to the crisis.

Joining us to talk about this are Myron Orfield, he's a professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School and a member of the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, and Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, one of the groups that organized the commission and requested the report. They're both here with me in Washington. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. WADE HENDERSON (CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights): Hello, Michel.

Prof. MYRON ORFIELD (School of Law, University of Minnesota): Hi.

MARTIN: Wade, I wanted to start with you. Your group, along with a coalition of other civil rights organizations, organized the commission and requested this report. Why?

Mr. HENDERSON: That's right. First of all, the National Commission, of course, was commissioned by us, but also the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the Law. All of us are organizations with a deep background in fair-housing policy.

And this was a propitious time, a great time to take a look at the state of fair housing in the country. After all, it is the 40th anniversary of the act. But more importantly, the country has changed for the better, and we wanted to take a look at where fair housing stood. We created a bipartisan commission that was chaired by Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros.

MARTIN: Two former directors of Housing and Urban Affairs.

Mr. HENDERSON: Two former secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, and they are, of course, deeply committed to fair-housing policies and showed that during their tenure. But we took a look at what the state of the country is. We had five hearings across the country in various cities: L.A., Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Houston.

And by examining the state of affairs, we discovered a couple of things. First of all, no agency or no single entity can really change the patterns of housing discrimination in our country. It does still exist. There are over 4 million cases of housing discrimination annually, and what we're looking at now are entrenched patterns of housing segregation that resulted over a period of time. It affects the way not only people live, but it affects their opportunities with education and employment. That's why we took a look at these policies.

MARTIN: Professor Orfield, there are two points that the report makes. It says despite strong legislation, past and ongoing discriminatory practices in the nation's housing and lending markets continue to produce levels of residential segregation that result in significant disparities between minority and non-minority households - to Wade Henderson's point that these - residential segregation produces other effects.

But secondly, you say that discrimination continues to be endemic, intertwined into the very fabric of our lives, even though more Americans live in diverse communities. What's your evidence for that?

Prof. ORFIELD: Well, there's very strong evidence that, for example, when black and Latino families are seeking housing, it's unjust at every level. But when they're moving to the suburbs, they're often shown particular neighborhoods. The black and Latino families are shown parts of the suburbs that are racially integrated or the schools are integrated. White families are steered to much whiter parts of the suburbs, and this happens in region after region, place after place.

MARTIN: Who's doing the steering? And what is your sense of why the steering continues? Is this a perceived consumer preference? Is it just the assumption that the people who are offering these housing choices are thinking about what their clients would prefer?

Prof. ORFIELD: I think there's many levels of answers to that. I think one is, sometimes real estate agents feel that if they introduce black or Latino families into all-white neighborhoods, that there will be retribution against them in their business. Sometimes they think that this is what people want. Sometimes it's a discrimination that white people have that they don't understand in terms of the way that people's choices are.

But this is one form - mortgage lending discrimination. Black and Latino families, particularly, have not accessed prime credit at really virtually all levels of income, and it's surprising how striking that's been. And also, black and Latino families who seek rent or buy in very white neighborhoods, they encounter systematic barriers that whites of similar income and education and background don't.

MARTIN: Like what?

Prof. ORFIELD: Deposits, more reviews. You know, they'll be shown the one unit they're looking at, but not the 10 others that...

MARTIN: There are available.

Prof. ORFIELD: Right.

MARTIN: And you know this based on what?

Prof. ORFIELD: Studies. There are dozens and dozens of studies for the last 15 years, a number of them that were sponsored at the late part of the Clinton administration, but they continue. Groups like the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Urban Institute continue to do paired-testing studies, where they study housing markets. There was a recent one in Detroit metropolitan area, another in Westchester County, New York, another in Atlanta.

MARTIN: But Wade Henderson said that there are 4 million instances of housing discrimination over the course of the year. It seems to me that those are allegations. How do you know that those are, in fact, acts of discrimination as opposed to concerns or questions that there might be discrimination?

Prof. ORFIELD: Well, there are very big barriers for people to bring fair- housing complaints. They are administratively burdensome, and in one sense, people that make those complaints realize they have a very long process in front of them and a difficult one. But I think that the testing studies really show, when they're done over and over again in place after place, and black families that are earning two and three times the median income are shown only certain parts of suburbia. I think this is compelling evidence.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Myron Orfield and Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights about the state of fair housing today. Wade Henderson, the report says that this pattern of ongoing residential segregation, even if it's broken down over the years, still has lingering effects on people's job opportunities and even access to credit. Explain that.

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, unfortunately, because of a history of housing discrimination, both overt and discrimination that results from the enforcement of policies that at one point promoted racial segregation even in federal policy and state policy, we now have a system where there is systemic patterns of discrimination and pockets of segregation that continue to exist.

Even when the laws have changed and when public attitudes have changed, those pockets of racial residential segregation are hard to break up. What you see now, however, in trying to create a fairer system of education for kids - all kids regardless of who they are or where they live or trying to provide job opportunities, those patterns of segregation continue to impede the ability to make change.

And so when you're looking at public education, for example, even cities that try to do creative things like Louisville and Seattle, where they voluntarily create and promote racial diversity as a way of improving their education, are impeded by the federal courts from doing it, in some ways the Supreme Court, and then defeated by the housing segregation that continues to exist.

MARTIN: What are your recommendations, and I'll hear from both of you on this. But Professor Orfield, one of the key recommendations is that there be some independent enforcement agency outside of the Housing and Urban Development - whatever enforcement mechanisms already exist within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Why? What would this agency be able to do that enforcement mechanisms within a Cabinet-level department don't already do or can't already do?

Prof. ORFIELD: Because this is such a serious problem and because it demands such resolve and independence to resolve, it was the belief of the commission that a strong agency that was separate, and this was its entire mission, was important. I think it's the commission recognizing how very serious the problem is and also how something like this, that's so hard to do, that isn't clear, can get lost inside of a larger agency with many functions.

MARTIN: Wade?

Mr. HENDERSON: First of all, the law itself is a good one and if it's enforced properly, it will make a difference. HUD has now conflicting responsibilities that make it hard to do that, so we want to divide the enforcement opportunity - one into an office of fair housing enforcement, which will focus precisely on handling complaints and public education in a more important way, and then an office of civil rights within HUD that will monitor HUD's own programs and look at policies that the federal government pursues that help to reinforce the segregation that we're talking about.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask each of you, and this may be a difficult question, but if your argument is that after 40 years of a legislative framework that says this is wrong; you can't do this, this behavior still continues, and there may be subconscious elements that contribute to it in the same way that we see in the medical field - you see people of color, ethnic minorities getting disparate levels or less aggressive treatment, and if you were to confront some of the medical professions, they would say, well, I'm not doing that and, of course, that data shows that they are - can you change people's attitudes, really? I mean, what do you think?

Prof. ORFIELD: Well, I certainly think you can change behavior. And I'm not sure about attitudes, but behavior and the manifestation of those attitudes is really the more important consideration for us. If you have a law that works - and we think we do - and you set up an enforcement scheme that helps to carry it out - we think we can - and more importantly, you try to promote a set of policies that really encourage communities to look at these issues in a more serious and focused way.

That's why, for example, we have the National Association of Realtors' immediate past president, Pat Combs, on this commission because he brings the perspective of Realtors that Myron Orfield talked about in terms of how the conscious or subconscious role of steering and other policies enter into a debate.

MARTIN: And can I just ask you this briefly, Wade Henderson; I meant to ask you this before. What about the preferences of, perhaps, members of minority groups who may prefer...

Mr. HENDERSON: Right.

MARTIN: To live in more diverse or perhaps more ethnically saturated environments?

Prof. ORFIELD: Absolutely.

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, look, everybody is entitled to personal choice about where they live and with whom they associate. But government policy has a responsibility to ensure that there is equal opportunity to live where you want. And what we're saying now is because of that existing residential segregation - hard to change - you need a set of combined policies to make a difference.

MARTIN: Myron Orfield, can you really fix this?

Prof. ORFIELD: Well, I think that housing segregation not only hurts black and Latino and Asian families very badly, but it also hurts communities. Black and Latino families only have about the third of the choices that whites as they move to the suburbs, and those places, when steering becomes very powerful and when whites are steered away from those neighborhoods, over time, prices decline, and black and Latino families lose their equity.

If black and Latino families have fair choices and can choose - if they have the same choices, this kind of segregation is less likely to occur. And segregation is harmful not only for individuals, but communities.

MARTIN: So it's not just that black and Latino families or households are steered away from predominantly white neighborhood, it's that white potential home buyers or renters are steered away from more...

Prof. ORFIELD: Yes.

MARTIN: Ethnically diverse areas as well, so it goes both ways.

Prof. ORFIELD: That's right, and that's a very important piece to realize about residential segregation, is that it's not only black and Latino families being steered toward places, it's the white families. And when white families are 25 percent of the housing market - white, married families withdraw, it's hard to maintain price.

MARTIN: Myron Orfield is a professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School. He's also the executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at that school. Wade Henderson is president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Gentleman, thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. HENDERSON: Thanks, Michel.

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