Talk Softly, Carry a Big Stick 

Meet Portland's Plan to Battle Housing Bias

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ANSWERING CRITICS who ripped his deliberative response to a damning rental discrimination audit released this spring, Commissioner Nick Fish last week finally took the wraps off his plan for tackling the problem, promising "deeper and broader" testing and more robust enforcement.

The plan—assembled in recent weeks by the Portland Housing Bureau, in concert with landlords and tenant advocates—marks a milestone for the city. It follows intense publicity and consternation over an audit, commissioned last year by Fish, in which nearly two-thirds of black and Latino rental applicants reported facing discrimination ["The Naughty List for Landlords," May 19, News]. It also comes as Portland completes a citywide review of "housing impediments," required every five years to keep the city eligible for federal grants.

"There will be no doubt in Portland that fair housing is at the top of our agenda," Fish said Friday, June 10, at a city hall press conference also attended by Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, the state's top fair-housing cop, and John Trasviña, assistant secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Under the plan, expected to head before Portland City Council this summer, the housing bureau would fund, for the first time, regular testing of rental properties and report those results at least annually. That testing will go beyond the two categories examined in the recent audit—race and ethnicity—and include others, like disability.

The Metro Multifamily Housing Association, the state's largest landlord advocacy group, would begin its own testing regimen, at Fish's insistence, with those results also made public. Meanwhile, a new panel would oversee fair housing efforts in both the city and Multnomah County.

And to beef up enforcement—a job the recession-shrunk housing bureau isn't designed to do on its own—officials will plot with the feds and Avakian's office, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), to refine the kinds of information testers produce and make it easier for victims to navigate a "Byzantine" complaint process.

The city, which referred the landlord list from the most recent audit to BOLI for further investigation, hopes better information from testers will both increase and strengthen future discrimination charges.

"We will do more testing. We will go deeper and broader. And the industry has committed to doing its own testing," Fish said.

But not everyone is convinced the city has done—or will do—enough. The Oregonian's editorial board applauded the plan over the weekend. But on the eve of Fish's press conference, citing emails it obtained from housing officials, the paper tried to imply its coverage helped push Fish's emphasis on enforcement. (The paper still didn't mention that it, like other media outlets in town, didn't report on the results until weeks after their release. Or that it was quiet on matters of enforcement last year when reporting on similar results in cities outside Portland.) Fish also attracted the ire of Oregon Republican senators who seized on the issue politically despite failing to support more funding for housing programs.

And while some housing and diversity advocates said Fish's slower-going approach was the right one, others freely rained down their displeasure.

"What was alarming was the city's response. Whenever it comes to discrimination, it always comes to that phrase: 'We need to change the hearts and minds of people,'" Daryl Dixon, Multnomah County's diversity director, said during a public hearing following Fish's press conference. "Robert F. Kennedy didn't wait for the hearts and minds of Southern racists when he sent in the National Guard... You need to enforce the law."

Dixon was referring, in part, to pledges by officials to also boost funding for "outreach" and education, both among tenants and landlords. Avakian, during the press conference, had defended the multi-pronged approach.

"Whether through private action, or state or federal prosecution, we don't eradicate housing discrimination only through enforcement actions," he said. "The single case of discrimination prosecuted to the end doesn't change the hearts and minds of the community."

The softer, more collaborative approaches offered by Fish include plans to pay for education seminars, and also—although these goals are fraught with economic uncertainty and political challenges—to seek a housing bond and help encourage the creation of more affordable housing in the city. He also wants to make efforts to combat gentrification—actually using the word—a part of his housing plan.

Just commissioning the rental audit was a departure for Portland, Fish said. Previously when studying housing hurdles, Fish said, officials would invite victims to testify, but collect only anecdotal evidence. The audit for the first time put startling numbers behind the phenomenon.

But will future results really be sent on for enforcement?

"It's certainly possible," Fish said. "We'll be guided by officials who do this work. It's our intention, if the data supports it, to forward it on for enforcement."

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