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Housing discrimination still far from banished

• Despite laws, thousands of complaints are lodged annually, with many more probably unreported
by:  JIM CLARK, Sivagami “Shivy” Vanka teaches Indian dance in her home to students such as Jahnavi Ramanathan (left), 17. Neighbors rallied against the practice, however, collecting signatures, photographing visitors and jotting down their license plate numbers.

Back in 1933, Portland's lone black doctor, DeNorval Unthank, moved with his wife into the all-white Ladd's Addition neighborhood of Southeast Portland.

Vandals shattered the Unthanks' windows and tossed garbage and a dead cat onto their yard, and 75 neighbors signed petitions asking them to move.

Such brazen harassment is illegal now, thanks to state and federal fair-housing laws. But housing discrimination lingers in Portland, activists say, often in more subtle forms.

'It's a significant barrier for people to be able to choose the house they want, and it continues to be a problem,' said Moloy Good, acting executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.

Every year, around 2,500 Oregonians dial the Portland-based housing council's hot line to register complaints about housing discrimination. After investigating, council staff determine about 200 to 300 of them are 'bona fide examples of discrimination,' Good said. A disproportionate share of the cases, sometimes more than half, occur in Portland.

In one recent case, a landlord near Cleveland High School denied housing to a woman because she had two teenage children. After an investigation, the landlord agreed to a $34,000 settlement.

In the Cedar Mill neighborhood just outside the city limits, Sivagami 'Shivy' Vanka said neighbors have harassed her for teaching Indian classical dance at her home.

Neighbors circulated petitions, snapped photographs of people visiting her home and pressured the homeowners association to change the rules, Vanka said. A white neighbor offering in-home piano lessons had no such problems, she said.

In another case, a disabled Portland woman was evicted after she requested a wheelchair ramp, said Diane Hess, the housing council's education director.

Another landlord gave a tenant 30 days to move out of a Portland apartment because he had a gay lover visiting him at the unit, Hess said.

Anecdotal evidence and formal studies suggest a small fraction of housing discrimination cases are reported. Tenants often prefer to seek other housing and get on with their lives, Hess said.

State had a Southern feel

This month, the Fair Housing Council of Oregon shines a light on housing discrimination to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act. One of the highlights of the group's April 30 celebration will be a guided bus tour through Portland sites where housing discrimination took place.

'The history was really bad here,' Hess said. 'Oregon had always been compared to Southern states.'

Oregon's original 1859 Constitution barred blacks from moving into the state, and prohibited blacks and Chinese from buying property if they didn't live here at the time of statehood.

In 1919, the Portland Realty Board code of ethics barred real estate agents from selling property in white neighborhoods to blacks or Asians. 'You could be drummed out of the board of Realtors for violating that,' Hess said.

Unthank, namesake of a North Portland park and a prominent civil rights activist, moved four times before finding a place where his family could settle peacefully.

For decades, Portland real estate agents reinforced segregation when working with clients. 'The new African-Americans would be steered to Albina,' Hess said.

The Portland Housing Authority segregated blacks and whites in public housing projects, including the huge Vanport community hastily erected during World War II around current-day Delta Park.

Oregon banned segregation by enacting the landmark Public Accommodations Act in 1953, followed by fair housing laws in 1957 and 1959.

Southern Democrats in the U.S. Senate stymied federal legislation by using their filibuster power. But President Johnson urged quick passage of the Fair Housing Act when riots erupted in 1968 after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and the Senate complied.

The federal act was amended in later years to expand the classes of people it protects.

Swifter action promised

The federal law bars housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, familial status, and mental or physical disabilities. It applies to housing-related rentals, sales, lending, insurance, land-use regulations, zoning and development.

The state enacted additional protections based on marital status, age and, starting this year, sexual orientation. Federal law specifically protects noncitizens from housing discrimination as well, Good said.

For many years, formal complaints about housing discrimination have been routed to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The cases are then resolved at hearings conducted by administrative law judges, in court trials or through negotiated settlements.

Oregonians filing complaints can expect swifter action on their cases in coming months. The state Bureau of Labor and Industries soon will take over investigations on behalf of HUD.

State lawmakers passed legislation in 2007 and in February this year to make state law compatible with federal protections, enabling HUD to delegate cases to the Portland-based state agency.

Cases will be handled in a similar fashion, but the state agency promises to end long waits for the airing of complaints.

The Fair Housing Council of Oregon, formed in 1990, fields complaints on its hot line from people throughout the state and Clark County, Wash. The council analyzes potential complaints and assists people in pursuing claims.

One major function of the council is to send 'testers' out to rental properties or other sites.

Some landlords are savvy about the laws, so they tell people there are no vacancies when they are approached by someone they don't want to serve, Good said. 'Testing is a method of uncovering that kind of discrimination.'

Pairs of people are trained to go independently to sites and seek housing or other services. Often the council will send a black person and a white person to test racial claims, or a single person and a person with a teenage child to test claims based on family status.

The housing council used testers to confirm discrimination against the Portland woman denied housing because she has teenage children, Good said.

Most allegations of housing discrimination aren't as simple to verify, he said.

Vanka's allegations might qualify as discrimination based on national origin, Good said, but there hasn't been a formal investigation.

Dance classes cause a stir

Sitting in her basement dance studio, Vanka pounds a wooden tablet, known as a thattu katai, chanting prayers in Tamil and instructions to her students. Four girls adorned in colorful silk garb respond with yogalike poses and movements.

Indian classical dance is a form of Hindu religious ritual and a way to celebrate cultural traditions, Vanka said. At her former home several blocks away, neighbors often came to watch her classes and hear the musicians she sometimes hosted.

The Vankas got a different reception after buying a 5,600-square-foot home near Northwest Cornell and Saltzman roads in 2005 for $1.2 million. Vanka prized the home's large basement space for dance lessons, which she has taught for 23 years.

But the activity upset neighbors in the upscale Bauer Oaks Estates, who began going door-to-door to gather petition signatures against the dance lessons.

'They never approached me,' Vanka said. 'They all worked against us. If it had been a white person, I think they would have come and talked.'

Neighbors jotted down license numbers of cars visiting the home, took pictures of Vanka's daughters when they were dropped off by friends, and peered out of windows with binoculars, Vanka said.

'If they knew how dear (Indian classical dance) is to us, they'd understand why we do it and keep it in our house,' said Meenakshi 'Meena' Vanka, 17, one of Vanka's two daughters who take lessons.

'They never got a chance to know us,' said the other daughter, 15-year-old Nandita Vanka. 'Our whole lives revolved around this negativeness for a while.'

Vanka said she had about five students come for individual lessons each day, and one group lesson on Fridays. She acknowledged that sometimes people parked in the wrong spots, but said at most she had five to seven cars parked in front, the same as neighbors hosting parties.

If neighbors are worried about protecting their home investments, she said, they should look elsewhere. 'I think it's this attitude that will bring down the property values.'

Krista Jellison, who lives across the street, said the neighborhood dispute is not about the ethnicity of the people doing Indian classical dance.

'It's based on a county code and neighborhood covenants, codes and restrictions,' she said, referring to rules about home-based businesses.

Neighborhood covenants, codes and restrictions often are built into property deeds and other documents governing what people may and may not do with their homes.

In past eras, such restrictions often were used to bar blacks from buying into neighborhoods.

Rarely are cases of alleged housing discrimination clear-cut, with people admitting to illegal behavior, Good said. In the Vankas' case, he said, it appears the neighbors did not pursue similar actions against the piano teacher. 'The way we look at it,' he said, 'your actions are going to speak louder than your words are saying.'

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Take a tour of housing history

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act

What: Guided bus tour of historic Portland sites where housing discrimination took place; speeches, a luncheon and panel discussion, on housing discrimination and segregation in 2008; awards ceremony; performance by the Sermonettes Gospel Singers

Who: Sponsored by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon

When: 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. April 30

Where: Ambridge Event Center, 300 N.E. Multnomah St.

Cost: $40 per person, $30 for students or seniors, register by April 14

Information: 503-412-6000; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Fair Housing Council of Oregon, 1020 S.W. Taylor St., Suite 700

Phone: 503-223-8197 or 1-800-424-3247

Web: www.fhco.org, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.