Housing discrimination rampant, report says

Government emphasis on enforcing law urged

April 17, 2003|By Elizabeth Levin | Elizabeth Levin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Linda Gagne and her husband, Alfred, thought they had found the perfect apartment in San Bruno, Calif. But when the couple met the landlord, she took one look at Gagne's guide dog and said she would not rent to them because of a strict no-pets policy.

Gagne explained that her guide dog was not a pet, but rather a companion trained to assist her because she is blind.

When the landlord still refused, Gagne decided to file a housing-discrimination complaint.

The Gagnes are among the thousands of people across the United States who are victims of housing discrimination, according to a report released yesterday by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

"Before this, I never experienced discrimination in renting a home," Linda Gagne said at a news conference yesterday. "We also felt like we needed to pursue this so it didn't happen to other blind people. This experience really upset me."

The federal government recorded 25,246 fair-housing complaints last year, the report said, 72 percent of them filed by blacks, people with disabilities or families with children.

People in those groups are the most likely to be targets of discrimination, according to the alliance, a consortium of private, nonprofit fair-housing organizations and civil rights groups.

Discrimination complaints based on country of origin increased from 10 percent of the total in 2001 to 12 percent last year, in part because of increased discrimination against people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the report said.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act, which became law 35 years ago this month, prohibits rental and sale decisions based on an applicant's race, color, religion or national origin.

On Tuesday, President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez observed the measure's anniversary with a ceremony at the White House during which they signed a proclamation urging Americans to abide by the law's provisions.

"As an immigrant myself, I have a profound appreciation for this country's tradition of being compassionate and welcoming to all people," Martinez said. "America benefits greatly from its diversity."

The Fair Housing Act has been expanded to prohibit discrimination based on gender and family status.

The fair-housing complaints that were reported last year accounted for fewer than 1 percent of discrimination incidents, said Shanna Smith, president of the alliance.

"Thirty-five years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, discrimination persists virtually unchallenged," Smith said. "These low complaint levels signal a need for increased fair-housing enforcement by the current administration."

The government must put more emphasis on enforcing the act and less on education about the law, Smith said.

She said education is not enough to alter behavior and that enforcement forces changes in practice.

Elizabeth Levin is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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