Victor Kerlow

CODY HALSEY wasn't quite apoplectic when he called last Friday, May 20, to complain that one of his properties was among 26 publicly targeted by Commissioner Nick Fish after an audit turned up troubling claims of racial and ethnic discrimination in Portland's rental market.

But Halsey, president of Cascade Community Management, clearly wasn't very happy, either. Halsey said the audit's allegation—that someone at his property at 1530 SE Reedway told a Latino applicant, but not a white applicant, to provide pay stubs—didn't tell the whole story.

Chalk it up to a mistake, he said, not bias.

"It could have been someone who doesn't normally talk to prospective tenants," he said, before taking pains to explain just how lenient his company is.

"We had a young lady the other day look at one of our places. She says, 'I get paid in cash.' She's a stripper. 'We would still need to verify your employment somehow.' She says, 'I have $100 in ones in my pocket—is that verification enough?' We called the company. And yes, she worked there."

Halsey was one of several landlords to gripe after receiving curt letters from Fish's office last week telling them they'd made a city hit list ["The Naughty List for Landlords, News, May 19].

Some declined to talk on the record. But a handful of others reached by the Mercury either offered some kind of explanation for why their names didn't belong on the list (mistaken identity?) or why the accusations, spelled out in one or two sentences at most in city-provided documents, didn't happen as reported. Yet others merely issued carefully calibrated words of concern.

"Landlords have a legal and moral obligation to offer the same opportunities and use the same policies for everyone," the Metro Multifamily Housing Association, a landlord group, said in a statement. "When fair housing laws are broken, violators should be held accountable. At the same time, fair housing education has never been more important to keep community awareness high and landlords operating legally."

The city, meanwhile, has promised to forward audit results to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) for investigation. The Fair Housing Council of Oregon, which conducted the audit last year, said blacks faced discrimination in 15 of 25 tests, while Latinos faced discrimination in 17 of 25 tests. White testers with identical profiles, besides race or ethnicity, were used as a control group.

The blowback, which officials anticipated, points to the challenges investigators face when building rock-solid discrimination cases out of subjective audit results. The response also testifies to the often-subtle nature of the complaints underlying the audit—in some cases, the complaint merely involved someone mentioning other minority tenants or failing to provide a glossy pamphlet.

While the city has faced criticism for holding back some vitriol after the results were announced, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offered a notable defense of the city's restraint.

"The city's release of the list—as well as the sending of letters to landlords and owners—reflects the city's commitment to fulfilling its obligations under the act," a HUD spokesman told the national American Independent.

Still, most of the allegations in the audit appear perfectly clear. Nob Hill Apartments, at 2405 NW Irving, was one of several properties where a manager was giving minorities substantially higher move-in costs. Both a black and Latino tester were told it would cost two to three times as much to move in.

Not that landlords, even in those cases, didn't have an explanation.

Daphne Kao, manager at Nob Hill, wondered if testers selectively reported her worst-case scenario for move-in costs, based on blemishes, like bad credit, that a third-party screening company might turn up. Kao also said the cheaper quotes could've been based on prorated rent, for a move-in date closer to the end of the month.

"Without a screening report, without an application, I don't know what to tell them specifically," Kao said, also tallying the various races and ethnic groups living in the building. "I can only give them scenarios. We have turned down Caucasians because their screening reports didn't get approved."

Managers and owners also complained about mistaken identity. JB Equities was not-ified when a black applicant looking to rent a unit at the Empress, at 20 NW 16th, reportedly was offered rent payments $55 higher than a white applicant.

The trouble, however, was that the Empress had long since been converted to condominiums.

"What we think happened was some condo owner discriminated," says Peter Fry, a consultant for JB Equities. "It's probably true, and we're trying to find out who it was. It's very important to us."

Moloy Good, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon (FHCO), did not return messages seeking comment. Fish's office also did not comment on the landlords' responses. The city last week provided snapshots of the discrimination complaints, but FHCO has not released its more detailed reports.

On Tuesday, May 24, Good issued a statement that acknowledged some mistakes in its list and noted that apologies were made. Besides JB Equities, Guardian Real Estate Services, Carefree Property Management, and Regency Property Management were incorrectly listed as managing properties in the audit.

"Despite these clerical errors," Good's statement said, "the results we originally reported to the Portland Housing Bureau are an accurate description of how our testers were treated at the properties they visited."