Saturday, May 16, 2015
By Dan Saltzman
At the heart of our conversation about the state of housing in Portland is a conversation about the kind of city we want to be — who will get to live in our great neighborhoods, what our schools and communities will look like, who our investments in parks and transit will ultimately serve.
As The Oregonian/OregonLive has reported, city-funded testing shows that Portland remains a place where you can be denied housing because of the color of your skin, where you were born, how ably you get around or if you have children. Of 51 properties tested, more than one-third showed unequal treatment toward an undercover tester belonging to a protected class, most frequently black and Latino testers.
The city works to foster integrated communities and housing access in a number of ways, including education efforts around fair housing policy and practice. Some areas of focus already appear to be yielding improvements: The latest report, for example, shows a drop in unequal treatment toward people with disabilities following concentrated outreach around reasonable accommodations. It seems, however, that policy training will not deter an agent who quotes higher rental prices or misleading information to prospective tenants because of their race. That is why the city of Portland's Housing Bureau commissioned improved audit testing that allows us for the first time to take meaningful action against discrimination.
Because adverse differential treatment is often subtle and challenging to prosecute, at least three tests are needed in a single case to stand up to legal scrutiny. Portland's hot rental market, however, is thwarting our ability to carry this out annually. After 15 months, we are still awaiting vacancies in close to 20 sites to conduct the necessary retests to support enforcement. This timeline is disappointing, but the integrity of the process is critical if we hope to be able to act where bias is uncovered and bad actors are identified.
In the meantime, testing is constantly taking place in our community. The Fair Housing Council of Oregon and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development test on an ongoing basis. City-funded tests add to that picture, so we have budgeted for testing in the coming year — but while we wait to conclude investigations on at least 19 pending cases, we have to ask ourselves whether annual reporting is possible at this time.
As we move forward, I will look to our citizen-based advisory boards, including the Fair Housing Advocacy Committee and the Portland Housing Advisory Commission, as well as members of the community at large, for input on the appropriate frequency and scope of audit testing.
In addition to testing, the city funds legal support for victims of fair housing violations. As a result, Legal Aid Services of Oregon has successfully negotiated or litigated 53 such cases since 2011. We will therefore also continue tenant education efforts, so that tenants are empowered to advocate on their own behalf and seek the legal services available to them.
One need only turn on the evening news and see the images coming out of Baltimore to witness the harm to cities when communities are left with a sense of hopelessness about their right to equal treatment. For some of us, this report reveals hard truths about our city; for others, it reflects little more than daily lived experiences. In every case, it gives us the starting point for an important conversation about how to respond to these results so that no Portlander is barred from housing opportunity due to discrimination.
Dan Saltzman is the Portland city commissioner in charge of the Housing Bureau.
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