When race locks the door

Derrick Z. Jackson

October 25, 1991|By Derrick Z. Jackson

WHEN I was a 19-year-old summer intern for Newsday, a broker showed me a lovely beach-side apartment on Long Island. I accepted it. The broker called back. She said the landlord stopped the deal because I was African American.

To avoid more wasted visits, I told landlords my race on the phone. It was a brilliant stroke to help the environment. Days would go by when I did not start the car once. It got so I was suspicious when two other interns and myself found an apartment in an all-white block in Queens. Sure enough, at summer's end, the landlord tried to stick us with the unpaid utility bill of the two previous tenants.

When my wife and I were 27, we were told an apartment was available. When my wife visited the agent, there was stammering, throat-clearing and, finally, this claim: The broker who was to show my wife the unit went home because she broke the heel on one of her dress pumps.

We sued -- and lost. The real estate agent successfully argued that the offending broker often had problems with the broken heel, regardless of the race of the client.

Such agents still have great success at blocking people of color from desired housing. African Americans and Latinos can expect discrimination on every other visit for housing, said the Urban Institute in Washington.

Last month, the institute released a study of 3,800 test visits to advertised apartment rentals or houses for sale in 25 cities in 1989. All cities had discrimination.

Margery Turner, the institute's director of housing research, said: "You can't lay the segregation on income. You can't lay it on whether people spoke with accents or not. It did not matter how light or dark the Hispanics were. There were no significant differences whether people were looking for efficiency apartments or purchasing a house. It was a problem for all blacks and Hispanics."

In 10 percent of cases, African American and Latino testers were denied seeing the same places shown to whites. White testers were told about more units 30-40 percent of the time. White testers received more favorable rental terms 40-50 percent of the time. Such terms included lower rents, lower security deposits, free rent for the first month and access to the laundry room and the swimming pool. White testers received more information in finding home mortgages.

Meanwhile, 20 percent of African Americans and Latinos were steered into lower-income black and brown neigborhoods. "The different types of discrimination often occur together," Turner said. "The price blacks and Hispanics pay is not just in the discrimination. Because fewer units are available to them, they spend more in gasoline and time they could be productive at something else.

"A higher percentage of income goes to housing. Yet, their children may have to go to inferior schools, which will continue to impact on their competitiveness for jobs, income and status. If you try hard enough, you will see houses in white neighborhoods. But it takes extra perseverance. If you lack perseverance, you will be steered."

That is a perverse perseverance. Those who find a house of their dreams still have to go to the bank. On Monday, a nationwide federal study said African Americans are twice as likely to be rejected for a home mortgage than white applicants. Latinos are 30 percent more likely to be rejected.

In Boston, African Americans were rejected three times more. African Americans in the highest income bracket, earning over NTC 120 percent of median income, were rejected 33 percent of the time. White people of the lowest income bracket were rejected only 25 percent of the time.

Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy, D-Mass., said the study shows that "credit is a privilege of race and wealth, not a function to pay back a loan." Turner has seen no decline in housing discrimination in 20 years.

Turner said, "I despair for the opportunities to increase racial understanding as long as people live and work apart."

Quite a few brokers and bankers do not despair at all.

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