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Fish, housing bureau warn landlords about discrimination

The Portland Housing Bureau and City Commissioner Nick Fish notified several Portland landlords Tuesday that the bureau was referring evidence of alleged discriminatory rental practices to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries for possible investigation.

The action follows release of a February study by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, which sent 50 pairs of testers to inquire about apartment vacancies, and found that, in the majority of cases, black or Mexican immigrant applicants were not treated as fairly as white applicants.

In some cases, the black or Mexican immigrant applicants were quoted rental deposits twice as high as those quoted to white applicants, though the pairs of applicants had similar incomes and jobs and were seeking the same unit. In one case, the rental agent never showed up to multiple appointments to show the vacant unit to the Mexican immigrant, and never called the applicant back, while the white applicant had no such problem.

The alleged discrimination was committed by representatives of smaller property owners, as well as some of the city's largest property management companies, including Norris and Stevens, Bluestone and Hockley Real Estate Services and Princeton Property Management.

Fish, who oversees the city's housing bureau, said he consulted experts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger and state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian about how to use the study results to hold violators of the fair housing law accountable for their actions. The consensus was to pass the information to the Bureau of Labor and Industries' Civil Rights Division, which can independently investigate the allegations, Fish said.

Possible remedies include fines, consent decrees or mandatory education of rental agents.

In these cases, though, there are no actual victims, since the people experiencing the discrimination were hired for study purposes.

When the housing bureau first announced the study results in an April 21 press release, it cited plans to seek better enforcement and education about fair housing laws.

Some media accounts suggested Fish was treading gingerly when it came to punishing racist landlords. However, Fish said from the outset that resolving housing discrimination required a comprehensive approach, including selective prosecution of 'bad apples' as well as education and training of landlords' agents about fair housing laws.

'We have always intended to pursue enforcement and other remedies,' he said Wednesday, when announcing the letters to property owners.

The Fair Housing Council of Oregon conducted its study last summer and fall, but didn't complete its report to the housing bureau, which commissioned the study, until February. Fish convened a broad committee of housing specialists, tenant advocates, landlord representatives and others to consider how to combat and reduce housing discrimination.

The committee finished its work recently, and its recommendations will be released in coming weeks, Fish said.