STACKED DECK: In 25 tests of landlords, black renters reported discrimination 15 times and Latinos 17 times. Illustration by Tripper Dungan

UNDER A BLITZ of pressure from legislative Republicans and critics—but not, significantly, from most fair housing advocates or investigators—Housing Commissioner Nick Fish has released a list of 26 Portland rental properties where black and Latino applicants reported unfair treatment in a recently released audit.

That roster—first obtained by the Mercury through a public records request—includes mom-and-pop operations and some single-family homes. But most of the offenders are large rental management companies. The locations are spread throughout Portland, but concentrated most heavily in Northwest and Southwest, not including downtown. (See list of addresses at right.) The properties were the targets of tests commissioned by Fish's office and conducted last summer and fall by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon (FHCO).

The release is Fish's most forceful action yet after findings released on FHCO's website on April 20 showed Latinos seeking rental housing reported facing discrimination in 17 of 25 tests compared to prospective white tenants, while blacks said they were treated differently in 15 of 25 tests. The alleged discriminatory actions—which violate federal, state, and local laws—included landlords quoting higher rent prices and deposits, and not offering move-in specials.

Nine properties were reported to have discriminated against both blacks and Latinos. Two of those properties are run by one company, Tandem Property Management, according to information provided by Fish's office.

"We had said from the beginning we would be pursuing some combination of enforcement and education," Fish told the Mercury, before explaining why he released the information sooner than he might have initially intended: "We had media outlets asking us for documents. And there has been significant misinformation about our intentions and our timeline."

The Mercury received a preliminary list of properties Tuesday, May 17, and was unable to call property managers for comment before deadline. The day before, the Mercury also left a message with the Metro Multifamily Housing Association, a landlord trade group, to talk about complaints generally, but did not hear back.

Take to Landlords to Court?

At a time when talk of equity, and how best to pay for efforts to promote it, are dominating budget talks in city hall, Fish's office planned to send letters to the property managers by Wednesday, May 18, alerting them that they made the list.

On Friday, May 13, Fish wrote a letter reiterating his plans for a "bold," multi-pronged approach to the issue, with a focus on educating renters and landlords about the law as much as on enforcement. Tuesday, he told the Mercury the city would not be taking any of the landlords to court. Instead, Fish said he would send the list of landlords to the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), the state office designated by the federal government to handle most fair housing claims in Oregon.

BOLI, which has handled 321 housing complaints since 2008, would then be in charge of further investigating the claims before declaring any landlord in violation of the law.

"These are allegations," Fish said. "Under our system of justice, people get to have a hearing on these allegations."

Then, in a few more weeks, Fish said, his office will unveil a "comprehensive," Portland-specific plan for combating housing discrimination, in consultation with his fellow city commissioners. That strategy would join the audit as a first for the city.

A Matter of "Urgency"

But Fish has been ripped in Oregonian articles and opinion pieces for not pursuing enforcement more urgently—coverage that has been far edgier than stories written last year about similar audits in Beaverton and Ashland where no enforcement plans were ever promised.

The paper patted itself on the back by noting Fish's letter "came four days after an article in the Oregonian detailed how the city had no concrete plans to enforce the law against the landlords and hadn't even notified them they'd been tested." A column by Anna Griffin complained that Fish had "screwed up" by also asking a committee, already exploring housing discrimination in Portland as part of the renewal process for federal housing grants, to review the findings.

Advocates and other housing insiders, interestingly, all noticed what the paper didn't mention in its cries for action: That it had been asleep at the wheel—along with every other news outlet in town, including the Mercury. The Oregonian's first story on the audit didn't hit print until nearly three weeks after Fish's office announced the results, way back on April 20.

That didn't stop the Senate Republican Caucus in Salem from piling on, seizing on the Oregonian's belated coverage. The caucus went around Fish and sent sharply worded letters to Attorney General John Kroger and Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, whose agency investigates most fair housing complaints in Oregon, to immediately step up enforcement. Avakian helpfully replied by commenting how his agency has received little, if any, state money to investigate housing cases.

"It missed the mark," Andrew Riley, public policy director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, said of the criticism. Riley also wrote a letter defending Fish's office. "I'd rather see the city take some time to develop a strategic, methodical response rather than rush into legal action."

"A Very Good Start"

For BOLI investigators (all five of them), for the entire state, actually building an airtight legal case out of what a volunteer tester reports—or real potential renter complaints—is no easy task and isn't something that can coalesce quickly.

There are plenty of cases that reek of discrimination that never rise to the required legal standard.

"In housing discrimination cases, testing is a very good start," says Cashauna Hill, an attorney who specializes in housing discrimination cases for the Oregon Law Center. But "there are other things that need to happen."

Even testers who agree to participate in Fair Housing Council audits don't always get back to investigators to provide more detail.

Investigators say they need a detailed paper trail to prove a case. That's a challenge, they say, because many people subjected to discrimination in the rental market might realize something's amiss but not that they need to keep notes about what happened. Investigators also must prove a consistent pattern of discrimination. A landlord reported for failing to offer a move-in deal to a Latino applicant might also do the same to some white applicants.

"We have to run out these accusations. You have to back them up," says Amy Klare, civil rights division administrator for BOLI.

"We have a process. When you have information that's concerning, you need to do an investigation."

Moloy Good, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, said he welcomed the attention on the housing audit. If there's a silver lining, he and others say, it's that people who haven't historically stumped for fair housing—hello, Republicans!—have acknowledged it's a priority.

"If the Senate Republicans really wanted to take the next step, it'd be getting the legislature to fund it adequately," says Good. "The main obstacle is [that] there are very, very few state funds allocated."

Sarah Mirk contributed reporting to this article.

***

A HOUSING DISCRIMINATION PRIMER

What does the law say? Federal, state, and local laws concerning fair housing are painfully clear: It's illegal to turn aside any prospective tenant based primarily on race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, line of work or source of cash, family status, or disability.

What do bad landlords do? They might fail to tell you if other costs, like water and garbage, are part of your rent. They might not offer move-in specials. They might try to steer you to lower-quality units, or away from their property altogether.

Hey, that happened to me! What can I do? Get in touch with groups (or housing attorneys) who will listen to your complaint and help you move forward. The Fair Housing Council of Oregon has a hotline at 223-8197. Check out the Oregon Law Center's website, oregonlawhelp.org. The Community Alliance of Tenants also has a hotline, at 288-0130. Or, you can directly ring up the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (hud.gov or 800-669-9777) or the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (oregon.gov/boli or 971-673-0761).

What else should I do? Advocates and investigators can't stress enough the importance of taking detailed notes about your encounter with an apparently discriminatory landlord. The more information and detail you can provide, the better chance there is you'll be able to prove your case.

What are some of the stats regarding complaints? After years of legislative work, BOLI finally got Uncle Sam's blessing to take on cases in 2008. Since then, it's received 321 housing discrimination cases statewide. A third of those (109) are from Multnomah County. Of all the statewide complaints, more than half (164) involve someone with a disability. That's almost twice the combined total of cases involving race (48) and ethnicity (37).

Sources: Mercury reporting, BOLI

***

Nick's Hit List

The Fair Housing Council of Oregon spent last summer and fall testing rental properties for discrimination against potential tenants on behalf of the city of Portland. Here are the 26 that failed the test last year:

Reported discrimination against African Americans:

Affinity Property Management (16000 SE Alder)

Arbor Glen Apartments (2609 SE 145th)

Princeton Property Management (1820 NE 104th)

Regency Management(7360 SW Barbur)

Royal Dover (15301 SE Division)

Schmidt Family Real Estate (2175 NW Davis)

The Sunset Group (1045 NE 90th)

Reported discrimination against Latinos:

Brian Dapp (8226 N Willamette)

Cascade Community Management (1530 SE Reedway)

Circum Pacific Properties (13625 SE Stark)

Gateway Arbors Condominium (9817 NE Irving)

JB Equities (20 NW 16th)

Mom-and-pop landlords (1631 N Jarrett, 1409 NE 71st, 6806 SE 69th)

Monnie Management (1625 SE Bidwell)

Star Metro Properties (1431 NE 21st)

Reported discrimination against both groups:

Bluestone and Hockley (1308 SW Cheltenham)

Lancaster Apartments (6640 SW Capital Highway)

Commerce Properties (8340 SW Apple)

Income Property Management (4509 SW Vermont; 13605 SE Division)

Nob Hill Apartments (2405 NW Irving)

Norris and Stevens (7740 SW 45th)

Tandem Property Management (1380 SW 66th; 12450 NW Barnes)

Update: Two listings have been changed after city officials said the results provided by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon listed an incorrect property management company.