A decade ago, George Willborn, a Black radio personality and comedian, reached a tentative deal to buy a $1.7 million, 8,000-square-foot house in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.

But the white sellers refused to sign the contract, he said, even though Willborn had made the highest offer.

Willborn and his wife filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The seller’s agent told investigators that the seller preferred not to sell to a Black family, according to court records.

HUD charged the sellers, their agent and brokerage with racial discrimination, finding reasonable cause in accordance with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The seller settled with Willborn by paying an undisclosed sum while denying wrongdoing.

“It was just a shock that in this day and age, racism [could] be so blatant,” Willborn said in an interview with The Washington Post. “This happens to Black people all the time, but there are a lot of times when they don’t have the means to fight it.”

The sellers and their agent did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post. The agent’s brokerage has since been acquired by Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, and the agent is not affiliated with that firm.

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During her confirmation hearing in January for secretary of housing and urban development, then-Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) said her priorities included eliminating housing discrimination and increasing Black homeownership.

The problem, though, is that many alleged incidents of racism are hard to identify and harder to prove, experts say.

So, what can you do if you’re a buyer or renter and you suspect you might be a victim of housing discrimination?

First, experts say, look for telltale signs: being put off when trying to view homes in neighborhoods where you’re a minority; being shown homes exclusively in neighborhoods where you’re in the majority; or having your application delayed and being told someone else has snagged the property.

Second, familiarize yourself with local and federal fair housing laws and take steps to build a case by documenting the alleged discrimination. And third, obtain legal representation — either a lawyer or a housing advocacy organization — to investigate your complaint and/or negotiate on your behalf.

“It might be hard for somebody to articulate and recognize it immediately,” said Kate Scott, executive director of the Equal Rights Center in Washington. But it usually starts with “a bad feeling about what’s going on.”

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Not always easy to detect

In 2019, roughly 29,000 complaints were lodged with local and state authorities, HUD and the Justice Department charging housing discrimination, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA). This tally is roughly 7% below the record number of complaints logged in 2018, when filings were at their highest since the alliance started tracking the statistics in the mid-1990s.

That same year, nearly 16.5% of the complaints alleged racism, a share second only to claims of disability bias. The alliance cautions, however, that the true number of housing discrimination incidents may be much higher as most cases are hard to identify and document. Most victims feel powerless or fear retaliation and, thus, eschew reporting their experiences, the alliance says.

“One of the characteristics of discrimination in the marketplace today is that it can be very subtle,” said Morgan Williams, general counsel at the NFHA. “It has been referred to as revolving-door discrimination or discrimination in which a housing service provider may welcome a prospective housing consumer into their office, shake their hand and show them the door.”

Mortgage lenders, for instance, may repeatedly ask Black home shoppers for the same information while processing their loan applications. Agents might only show certain neighborhoods to African American buyers in a process known as “steering.” HUD, as well as a number of housing organizations, publish warnings and reports about such discriminatory actions.

This happens to Black people all the time, but there are a lot of times when they don’t have the means to fight it.

Yet for an individual experiencing these situations, it may be hard to decipher whether racial bias lies at their core. For a single customer, experts say, there is seldom a base to compare how others are treated.

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According to a 2019 report by the National Association of Realtors, 13% of Black home buyers’ mortgage applications were rejected, mainly because of their debt-to-income ratio. Only 5% of white mortgage requesters faced refusals, a third of them reporting debt-to-income qualifications as the reason.

Black house hunters are more likely to have lower incomes, more debt and worse credit scores than their white peers, according to the National Association of Realtors.

When they become homeowners, they still play catch-up. They have less equity in their residences, but that equity makes up most of their overall wealth, a 2017 analysis by Pew Research shows.

“The racial wealth gap plays so much into that,” said Parker Gilkesson, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

At about $170,000, the net worth of the average white family is roughly 10 times larger than that of a Black family, according to the Brookings Institution.

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In a June report, the Urban Institute summarized multiple studies showing that the racial wealth divide would narrow if the homeownership rate was equalized. The Black homeownership rate grew almost 4% year-over-year to roughly 46.5% in the third quarter of 2020. Yet it still lags behind the share of white homeowners, which is 76%, according to the Census Bureau.

Racism in renting

Renting comes with its own set of racist behaviors, experts say. In 2012, HUD’s decennial study on racial inequalities in the housing market showed that while Black renters were equally able to arrange meetings with agents, they were told about 11.4% fewer available units and shown 4.2% fewer homes than similarly qualified white apartment seekers.

In 2019, after being denied an apartment, Sarel Hines filed a complaint with the Office of Human Rights in D.C., where she rents with a Housing Choice, commonly known as Section 8, voucher.

Landlords in D.C. and around the country regularly discriminate against voucher holders, said Solomon Greene, senior fellow with the Urban Institute, and sometimes they quite bluntly state in apartment listings that they ought not apply. It is source-of-income discrimination that inordinately affects African Americans. According to HUD, Black households comprise about half of all families receiving housing assistance, which ranges from living in public housing to having Section 8 vouchers.

Income is not a protected category under the Fair Housing Act. Rather, it falls onto local jurisdictions to rule it out. About 20 states and D.C. have source-of-income discrimination laws, which a number of municipalities have also adopted.

D.C. banned source-of-income discrimination in 2005. But Hines, who received her voucher in 2014 after nearly 20 years of waiting for it due to a chronic undersupply and high demand for assistance, said she has heard many times that the units she sought did not accept vouchers or had income requirements that excluded housing assistance. Under the law, both practices are illegal.

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“It started to affect me mentally, especially [when I couldn’t get] places that I really liked and wanted to be in,” Hines said, adding she and her three children sometimes had to remain in crammed or unsafe units until she could apply again.

Rules barring people with criminal backgrounds from rentals also disproportionately affect Black people, who make up a third of all imprisoned people in the United States even though they represent only about 13% of the nation’s population, experts say.

In some cases, tenant screening solutions disqualify applicants simply for arrests, even if they have never been charged or convicted of a crime.

“That can prohibit you from getting into [adequate] housing, and you’re going to be left with less quality housing and less scrupulous landlords and housing providers,” said Marley Hochendoner, executive director of the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance in Spokane.

In numerous local jurisdictions, eviction proceedings also linger on renters’ records, even when they have won their cases, impeding them from signing future leases. According to the Chicago-based Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH), residents of predominantly Black communities in the city are evicted at rates two to three times higher than those living in white neighborhoods.

The Eviction Lab, a national eviction data and research organization, finds such disproportionalities replicating themselves across the country. They also exist in other parts of the housing market.

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During the foreclosure wave triggered by the Great Recession, 2.5 million homes were repossessed by lenders from 2007 through 2009, according to a report by the Center for Responsible Lending. Controlling for income, the center estimates that 8% of Black and Latino homeowners, who took out mortgages between 2005 and 2008, lost their residences to foreclosure. Some 4.5% of white homeowners did.

“Fair housing isn’t entirely about getting into a house,” said Mark Swartz, executive director of the LCBH. “Fair housing is also about being able to stay in a unit.”

What to do if you think you’re a victim

HUD has several online resources at www.hud.gov explaining the provisions of the Fair Housing Act and how to file a complaint.

The HUD site offers scenarios that illustrate violations of the law.

Housing discrimination’s red flags may include:

  • Bad customer service: not receiving a call back or an email response, for instance.
  • Being shown houses or apartments only in certain neighborhoods: This practice is known as “steering” clients to communities that the housing service provider, be it a lender or a real estate agent, thinks best match the clients’ background even if customers express broad preferences.
  • Being repeatedly asked for the same information or for additional documents until the residence is rented or purchased by someone else.
  • Being told a rental or for-sale home is not available when it is.

When they suspect discrimination, renters, homeowners, buyers and sellers should contact their attorney, local legal aid or fair housing organization, which can provide help that includes:

  • Mediation or contacting the housing service provider to notify them that they are potentially breaching discrimination laws. Scott said that in some cases, a dialogue helps resolve the situation.
  • Submission of a formal complaint: Complaints can be submitted to local authorities or directly to HUD. The latter may task partner fair housing organizations (such as Scott’s Equal Rights Center) to investigate the alleged discrimination.
  • File a lawsuit: Depending on the severity of purported discrimination and if an administrative complaint does not yield an agreement, a lawsuit could be pursued.
  • Legal representation: During reconciliation attempts, the housing service provider, especially if it is a bank or a corporate landlord, is likely to be represented by a lawyer. Fair housing and legal aid groups can provide legal representation for those who cannot afford an attorney.

How complaints work

Hines, the voucher holder in D.C., settled her complaint, which the Equal Rights Center helped her file, not long ago.

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Complaints, which are a frequently used recourse, require an initial recounting of the incident when filing, followed by an interview with HUD or a state or a local housing agency.

Evidence such as text messages and emails that illustrate the suspected discrimination are helpful. Depending on the nature of the allegation and the available evidence, the housing agency is likely to conduct testing to determine whether the purported violator indeed engaged in discriminatory practices.

Complaints usually take several months to reach a resolution, which can range from a formal apology to monetary compensation. Lawsuits can stretch for several years.

Housing consumers who detect possible discrimination, even if it does not target them, can still flag it.

“The reports of discrimination come from all sorts of consumers as well as folks in the industry itself,” said NFHA’s Williams.