Undercover sting finds illegal housing discrimination in Seattle

Oct 21, 2011

A snapshot of everyday business practices displays a pattern of discrimination against black and disabled renters in Seattle. That’s the conclusion of an undercover investigation by the city’s Office for Civil Rights. 

The city contracted with the non-profit Fair Housing Center of Washington to test 48 properties that were randomly selected. It found more than half of all properties tested showed evidence of illegal housing discrimination.

"These results confirm that housing discrimination is the reality for many people who live in Seattle," said Mayor Mike McGinn in a statement released Thursday afternoon. "That is simply not acceptable. The actions that we are taking as a response to these results will help us to become a more equitable city."

The tests

Investigators posed as prospective renters, inquiring in person and over the phone. In most cases, the Fair Housing Center used paired testers to measure differences in the services they received from leasing agents, as well as information about vacancies, rental rates and other conditions. The matched pairs of testers had similar rental profiles in every respect except for their race or disability.

In race-based tests, they found nearly 70 percent of property managers favored white renters, by doing things such as quoting higher rents to blacks and requiring credit and criminal checks that weren’t required for whites.

In 36 percent of the properties tested, they found inconsistencies that create barriers for people with disabilities. These included refusing to accommodate service animals, not telling testers about available units or not providing parking areas with spots designated for people with disabilities.

Charges being filed

The city is filing charges against the six property owners who most clearly violated anti-discrimination laws. Others have been offered training and resources. The investigation is a stark contrast to the usual enforcement of fair-housing laws, which is mostly driven by individual complaints.   

"As a community, we cannot afford to allow discrimination in housing," said Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell in the statement. "Knowing these test results help us to re-dedicate ourselves to work for greater fairness across Seattle."

Councilmembers Harrell and Tim Burgess asked Seattle's Office of Civil Rights to the conduct the tests late last year.

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