Portland officials promise results on housing discrimination testing by April – OregonLive.com
Four years after pledging annual undercover testing to root out housing discrimination, Portland leaders remain empty-handed.
That could soon change.
City officials, who promised such “audit” testing in 2011, say they’ll issue a report on new testing by April.
The report should provide a fresh look at barriers in Portland’s overheated rental market to minorities, families and people with disabilities. It will also offer the first comparison to a 2010 audit that found African American and Latino testers often faced different treatment than whites.
That audit, despite questions about its methodology, provoked community outrage and prompted city leaders to unveil an action plan that included the pledge to conduct annual tests.
Last week, Portland officials insisted they had made progress but declined to discuss it beyond saying results are on the way. Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, issued a statement saying generally that the city remains committed to fighting rental discrimination.
“We are disappointed that testing has taken so long, but we also know that the integrity of the process and the accuracy of the findings are critical to our ability to address housing disparities,” the statement read.
Audit testing became an issue in 2011 after the city reported the results of the 2010 audit but offered no plan to penalize landlords. In that audit, the city hired nonprofit Fair Housing Council of Oregon to send out pairs of testers posing as prospective renters to compare whether landlords treated blacks or Latinos differently from whites. In about two-thirds of cases, they did.
Portland officials later said the results were unreliable and unenforceable. But during the uproar, Commissioner Nick Fish in June 2011 promised annual audit testing and public results as part of his “bold” plan to “end discrimination” in rental housing.
“The plan will not change things overnight. It will take time and effort,” Fish, then in charge of the Housing Bureau, said in September 2011 as the City Council voted 4-0 in support. “But as long as I’m on this council, I commit to making this a core priority.”
Fish declined an interview request for this story. An aide said Fish, who lost oversight of the Housing Bureau in February 2013, had no role in the city’s latest testing.
Under Fish, housing officials in 2012 searched for a company to conduct testing. In April 2013, the city hired the Fair Housing Center of Washington under a $70,000 contract to oversee testing by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.
Portland’s contract calls for 50 tests involving pairs of undercover testers and 20 follow-up tests. The city “hoped” the testing would be complete by 2013 but officials could report no progress in January 2014.
Portland’s contract also allows for enforcement, although the responsibility for filing complaints is murky. Portland “authorizes” the Fair Housing Center of Washington to use the results for enforcement after consulting with city officials. Additionally, city attorneys “may” use the testing information to file litigation, although nothing in the contract prohibits the contractor from filing complaints if Portland doesn’t.
Newly released records show the city has made one payment under its contract, $25,098.98 last May, which would cover about three dozen tests at a cost of $700 each.
Traci Manning, director of the Housing Bureau, declined an interview request. In a statement, bureau spokeswoman Martha Calhoon said the Fair Housing Center of Washington “initially deferred” testing for fear that media coverage would compromise it.
She didn’t say when testing began or if it has ended. She added that Portland’s tight rental market makes accurate audit testing difficult, adding to delays.
The Portland metro area had the nation’s second-lowest rental vacancy rate in 2013, at 3.1 percent according to U.S. Census data, behind only San Jose, California. In Denver and Indianapolis, two areas with greater rates of available rental units, fair housing officials conducted audit tests in 2012 and 2013 in about six months.
Given the number of tests scheduled in Portland and the city’s past controversy, two years isn’t out of line, said Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Such testing, she said, is “critical because most people have a hard time identifying if they’ve been discriminated against because it’s so subtle.”
In addition to testing, the city also pledged in 2011 to increase the number of fair-housing cases referred for litigation, increase landlord training, launch a public information campaign and report on overall progress every year.
Officials have produced two reports, one spanning July 2011 to March 2013, the second July 2012 to June 2013. The reports show that fair-housing cases dropped year to year, landlord trainings increased and the public information campaign occurred, though a few months late.
Calhoon said she couldn’t immediately say when the Housing Bureau would produce a new report.
The 2011 plan also created a Fair Housing Advocacy Committee to review audit tests and release results. Tuesday, at the committee’s quarterly meeting, members will be asked to delete wording directing them to provide “guidance and oversight” on audit testing.
Committee chairman Jason Trombley said he couldn’t explain the reasoning for the change but that he didn’t think it would affect members’ ability to review data. Calhoon said she couldn’t explain the revision, either.
Calhoon also said she couldn’t say whether Portland will commit to future audit testing or whether the proposed fiscal 2016 budget includes money for it.
Saltzman, in his statement, said: “As a City, we take Fair Housing very seriously and are committed to ensuring that no Portlander is barred from housing opportunity due to discrimination.”
— Brad Schmidt