Racism in real estate

By SEAN FLYNN  |  May 13, 2009

Between 1983 and 1987, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) conducted three investigations of racial discrimination in the Boston-area housing market, all of which produced discouragingly similar results. In a 1983 study of Somerville and Cambridge, 75 percent of the 12 real-estate agencies tested "appeared to violate fair housing laws" by discriminating against minorities. After a 1984 study in Milton, MCAD initiated complaints against 80 percent of the real-estate companies tested there. And last year, five out of seven Framingham real-estate agencies were charged with discriminating on the basis of either race or national origin.

"Eight out of every 10 times I try to move out of Roxbury," says Franklin Young, supervisor of MCAD's civil-rights review program, "I'm going to be discriminated against." And while "your chances of being closed out [of the housing market] are almost nil," says MHFA's Henderson, "you may not be given all the options."

According to the data collected in MCAD's Cambridge/Somerville study, for example, black testers who asked for housing identical to that requested by their white counterparts were told about 32 percent fewer apartments, and actually shown 58 percent fewer. Blacks were also more likely to be told only about units in certain buildings or areas, and they were often quoted higher rents and security deposits than were whites. And all of those forms of discrimination are almost impossible to detect without a direct black-and-white comparison.

Several real-estate agents who spoke to the Phoenix, however, insist they are not to blame for the discrimination they practice.

"What I'm doing is purely a function of the racism of the landlords," says one. "And the broker is placed in a terrible position: either we do business the way the landlord dictates, which is racist, or we don't do any business."

"Once the word gets out that you'll bring anyone over to see an apartment," says another agent, "I don't think you'll get the listings."

Indeed, it is the pervasiveness of racism that allows it to perpetuate itself in the real-estate business. "You know how it is," says one agent. "If you're in a peer group and everyone else is discriminating, it just makes it that much easier for you to discriminate. So Joe Jones looks at that and says, 'Why should I be the hero and rent to a black person and take a chance on getting my house burned down?'" And with that kind of thinking running rampant, says Young, "even individuals who don't have the propensity to discriminate against someone else&ldots;are indoctrinated into a real-estate system to think they've got to do this to survive."

And if the problem is so tightly woven into the fabric of society, brokers wonder, why are they being charged with solving it? Why are they the ones who are pursued and penalized by investigative agencies when they are only a symptom rather than the disease? "Because," says MCAD commissioner Kathy Allen, "they're the ones with the power."

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