PORTLAND IS NOW home to a "Fair Housing Action Plan"—but what does that mean?
"This was an opportunity to take this equity talk and make it real," said Housing Commissioner Nick Fish last Wednesday, September 14, as city council unanimously approved the feel-good plan. On the heels of a city-funded Fair Housing Council of Oregon audit that showed widespread racial and ethnic discrimination among landlords, the eight-point plan promises to create a fair housing advocacy committee and boost enforcement of fair housing law.
But the plan comes with no specific dollars attached, meaning the city's "talk" has no new teeth.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) receives about 100 complaints of housing discrimination a year, but has only four part-time and one full-time housing discrimination investigators. Portland is a landlord's market right now, leaving residents particularly vulnerable to shoddy behavior and conditions as they search for cheap rent.
What are the top things landlords do over and over that could qualify as discrimination? We talked with housing lawyers and renters' rights advocates to find out.
Even before they actually live in an apartment, renters can face discrimination from landlords. The Fair Housing Council's spring audit had black, white, and Latino actors attempt to rent units around Portland—the results showed black and Latino applicants reported worse treatment 60 to 68 percent of the time. Some were quoted higher prices or extra fees, shown a worse unit than the white renters, or not given an application ["The Naughty List for Landlords," News, May 19].
The city promised legal action against the wayward landlords, but the subjective nature of the test failed to provide the cases with solid legal legs. Of the cases against 26 landlords, the Fair Housing Council wound up only submitting one complaint to BOLI. It was dismissed in August because the evidence of intentional discrimination was too weak.
Attorney Cashauna Hill, who works with mostly low-income clients at the Oregon Law Center, says she often sees cases of landlords refusing to take action against racial, ethnic, or sexual harassment. That's potentially a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, which bars landlords from fostering a "hostile environment." Harassing behavior can mean anything from managers making lewd comments to actions like a resident putting up swastikas or anti-gay material on someone's door.
"The law requires landlords to take steps to reasonably end the harassment," says Hill. "They have a duty to investigate."
Oregon is a no-cause eviction state, which means landlords can boot renters without giving a reason, as long as they give enough notice (30 days if you've lived in a unit less than a year, 60 days after that). But kicking out a renter who requests reasonable repairs is illegal retaliation.
The Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) often fields calls through its renters' rights hotline from residents who wake up to an eviction notice after demanding the landlord bring their building up to code on issues like providing adequate waterproofing, good ventilation, and hot water. CAT recommends keeping meticulous track of all communication with landlords—otherwise retaliation is hard to prove.
CHARGING CRAZY FEES
Charging fees because a renter's kids play outside—that's a no. So is keeping a deposit because of regular "wear and tear" damage to a unit. Becky Straus, who has answered CAT's hotline for five years, notes that while they don't constitute outright discrimination, issues involving shoddy housing and deposit-keeping disproportionately impact immigrant and low-income communities. "When there's a language barrier or someone who doesn't know much about their rights, a landlord might take advantage of that," says Straus.
If you faced housing discrimination, get help here:
Community Alliance of Tenants renters' rights hotline: 288-0130
Fair Housing Council complaint and info line: 800-424-3247
Report complaints to Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries civil rights division: oregon.gov/BOLI/CRD