Tests find bias against renters with kids or public assistance

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BANGOR (AP) – A federally funded initiative has found evidence of discrimination in Maine’s rental housing market, with prospective tenants on public assistance or with children being the most frequent victims.

The two-year program by low-income advocate Pine Tree Legal Assistance found discrimination in about 20 percent of the tests, said Rachelle Parise, who oversaw 144 tests from October 2004 to September 2006.

In some of the tests, a landlord would receive an inquiry from someone claiming to receive federal housing assistance vouchers. A second caller would then indicate that he or she was not receiving public assistance for rent.

Strong evidence of discrimination was found in 29 percent of those cases, Parise said, with the second caller invited to view the unit after the first was told the rental was unavailable.

“There’s a bias against poor people that’s pretty strong,” she said.

While landlords in owner-occupied duplexes are exempt from anti-discrimination laws, Parise said many who own two or more rental units are unaware that public assistance recipients are in a protected class under the Maine Human Rights Act.

Would-be renters with children were also frequent victims of discrimination in the testing, Parise said.

A tester who said she was a single mother with one child would call about a one-bedroom apartment before a second inquiry by someone claiming to have an adult partner.

In 29 percent of the tests, the second caller was invited to see the apartment, while the first caller either did not receive a return call or was told the rental was no longer available.

Landlords tend to think a mother and child could not share a one-bedroom apartment, Parise said, but that assumption is not legal.

“Parents can sleep on the couch, and lots do,” said Parise, who noted evidence of a bias against children.

Some landlords view their properties as an investment, and think “children could hurt my investment” by damaging it, she said.

The survey also found evidence of discrimination against people with disabilities and members of a minority race or nationality.

In Presque Isle, Parise said, an Hispanic migrant worker called about an advertisement listing three rental units but was shown just one, a decrepit trailer with broken windows. A non-Hispanic tester calling later was offered the three housing options.

In the Portland area, where Parise works, testers with foreign accents were often not called back while their native counterparts were invited to view rental housing.

“It takes the person with an accent five or six extra calls to get a call back,” she said.

Parise said the testing, funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps keep landlords honest and supports state and federal law. It is also an important enforcement tool, because victims may never suspect they were discriminated against without testing.

“Something fishy is going on if there’s not testing,” Parise said. “The reason we do these tests is to help people who don’t have a lot of choices.”

AP-ES-01-02-07 1030EST

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