Money for Nothing

FIVE MONTHS AFTER a state survey found widespread housing discrimination in two Minneapolis neighborhoods, the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights has brought charges against just one of the 40 landlords the study concluded discriminated against people of color. Instead, the DCR, the state's point agency for combatting housing discrimination, plans to conduct more studies.

Last year, the department hired the Minnesota Fair Housing Center to test local rental markets. The center found that in Minneapolis's Northeast and Southwest neighborhoods, people of color sent to apply for rental housing were treated differently than those who were white. In Southwest, 63 percent of minority testers experienced some sort of discrimination, as did nearly half of those in the Northeast. The alleged discrimination is exactly the kind of conduct the department is supposed to combat: White renters were offered discounts not offered to minorities; applicants of color were told units later shown to whites were taken; and landlords showed minorities inferior units and offered them more burdensome leases.

The department thought the lone case it filed would have special significance because the charges were brought by the director himself. But some fair-housing advocates contend that the prosecution has more to do with political window-dressing than with effective law enforcement. If the government was truly interested in fair housing, they say, civil-rights officials would be prosecuting the other 39 landlords who allegedly discriminated against the testers.

DCR Executive Director Kenneth White says the agency prefers educating landlords to enforcing civil-rights statutes. He says department investigators looked at four cases out of the 40 reported in the study, and chose to bring charges in the one in which the evidence was strongest. The department made no effort to inform the other landlords of their potentially illegal actions, which White insists shouldn't be the DCR's sole responsibility. He says individual testers or the Fair Housing Center could have filed charges against discriminatory landlords as well.

The Fair Housing Center is a private, nonprofit organization that conducts studies for other organizations, not a government law-enforcement agency, according to its executive director, Lawrence Winans. Following the study, the center sent a checklist informing landlords of their obligations under the fair-housing act and encouraging them to "have an open mind" and to "not hold prejudiced stereotypes." The center also holds community meetings to educate landlords and tenants about housing discrimination, but has no guarantee that landlords who discriminate will be the ones who attend.

Winans says it's hard to get local government to take housing discrimination seriously. "In talking with people in various levels of government, I'm continually reminding them of the need to address fair-housing issues and what I always hear is, 'Well we know that's a problem, but it really isn't that big of a problem here in Minnesota. We don't have racial discrimination in housing.' [Studies] like this help document that we do actually have problems like this."

The inattention, he says, leads to a lack of funding. But critics contend that the state doesn't use what funding it gets very effectively. Last year, the federal government gave the department almost $300,000 in grants, which the agency spent on promotional campaigns, educational fairs, and studies.

Indeed, most of the action surrounding last year's study involves funding and conducting further studies. The department has asked the Fair Housing Center to do follow-up tests in the same two Minneapolis neighborhoods this summer, and a private group has requested a similar survey to be done in St. Paul. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering whether to give the state $50,000 for still another study.

"The fair-housing campaign is a charade," says Kirk Hill of the Minnesota Tenants Union. "What's happened is the Legal Aid Society and the DCR have been handed hundreds of thousands of dollars by HUD and by the city of Minneapolis to enhance their fair-housing efforts and for the most part they spin their wheels, hold a lot of conferences, [and] deplore the racist suburbs and the prejudiced and wealthy neighborhoods at these conferences."

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