New Orleans’ blacks see rental block

African Americans seeking rentals face discrimination and fewer accommodations, a study finds.

By Ann M. Simmons, Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — African Americans seeking rental housing in the New Orleans metropolitan area face significant discrimination and fewer accommodations to choose from since Hurricane Katrina, a report released Tuesday found.

In 6 out of 10 transactions, African Americans faced less favorable treatment than comparably qualified whites, the report said.

“For Rent, Unless You’re Black,” a study by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, surveyed 40 properties in the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard.

Race-based housing discrimination exists in many U.S. cities, but discrimination against blacks in New Orleans was particularly egregious given the housing shortage, said James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

The shortage resulting from the loss of homes in hurricanes Katrina and Rita is already difficult to overcome, Perry said.

“It’s unfathomable that on top of that, African Americans have to deal with discrimination,” he added.

The storms destroyed more than 200,000 homes and apartments in Louisiana — the majority of them in the New Orleans metropolitan area — according to Louisiana statistics.

The study comes as fair housing advocates say some local governments and politicians are using zoning and other policies to discourage poor and minority residents from living in their neighborhoods.

Last fall, St. Bernard Parish passed an ordinance that required owners of single-family homes there, more than 90% of whom are white, to rent only to blood relatives — making it almost impossible for nonwhites to rent in the parish. Faced with a legal challenge, the ordinance was repealed.

Jefferson Parish politicians have passed a resolution aimed at limiting the construction of low-income units. In Orleans Parish, strong community opposition forced two councilwomen to drop a proposal to put a moratorium on building multifamily housing in their districts.

Anthony Keck, president of the Greater New Orleans Housing Action Center board of directors, cited fair housing practices as crucial to New Orleans’ recovery.

“In order to attract people back to the city, we really need to tackle housing discrimination,” Keck said.

In an investigation between September 2006 and April 2007, the fair housing action center followed black and white would-be renters as they tried to lease properties from private landlords. The “testers” were from the same income bracket, on similar career paths and had matching family and rental histories, said Thena Robinson, the group’s coordinator of investigations.

They received classroom and field training, were taught to be objective fact-finders and told “to report, but not interpret, the results of the test,” she said.

The rental units were randomly selected from print and Internet listings.

African American testers were offered fewer appointments to view units, according to housing advocates. In some instances, black testers were told applications were not being accepted, but hours later white testers were offered appointments to visit the same unit. In other cases, African American renters were told units would not be available anytime soon, but white testers were advised of immediate availability.

In one example, black and white testers responded to an advertisement for an apartment in Orleans Parish on Jan. 22. An agent told the black tester that only one unit was available, and not until the end of February. The black would-be renter was allowed to view the apartment only through a window.

Later that day, the same agent showed a white tester two units that would be available Feb. 1. That renter also was advised of another unit coming available March 1.

According to the report, African Americans were often quoted higher rents than those advertised, or different lease terms and conditions, and steered to less favorable units. In many instances, the report charged that landlords used “linguistic profiling” to determine whether to return calls from African Americans inquiring about certain units.

“What we saw were subtle differences that a person looking for housing might not be able to detect unless they were able to compare their experience with another person,” Perry said.

The fair housing advocates would not identify the properties targeted in the tests or the testers.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968, a portion of which is known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibits race discrimination in housing, and protects people trying to rent or buy a home, secure a mortgage, or purchase homeowners insurance.

Perry said his group would seek legal action against the landlords.