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Tenant status a tricky question

Some landlords try to weed out illegal immigrants

When the Fair Housing Council of Oregon hired pairs of Anglo and Mexican-immigrant testers last year to inquire about the same Portland apartments for rent, property managers treated the two equally in just two out of 25 cases.

In 17 instances, the Fair Housing Council found discriminatory treatment against the self-described Mexican immigrant applicant. In six other cases, the Mexican immigrant wasn't treated equally but the results weren't conclusive, often because the two applicants met with different rental agents.

The city-commissioned study, which also found unequal treatment of black applicants, sounded an alarm about racist - and potentially illegal - practices by Portland landlords.

It also raises touchy questions about how landlords can or should address concerns about renting to illegal immigrants, and how such concerns could result in discriminatory treatment of rental applicants.

The bottom line, experts say, is that landlords may deploy efforts that screen out rental applicants who are not legally in the United States. But they must treat every rental applicant the same, and not just use such screens with, for example, anyone with brown skin.

'It's certainly a tricky area,' says Bob Estabrook, spokesman for the state Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI).

BOLI investigates allegations of housing discrimination for the state and, on contract, for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Landlords must use a neutral policy to screen tenants, Estabrook says, such as a uniform credit check that includes verifying each applicant's Social Security number. 'If you only do credit checks on individuals with Hispanic last names, that's not a neutral policy,' he says.

The laws are very different when it comes to hiring someone in the country illegally, versus renting them an apartment. It may be illegal for an Oregon employer to knowingly hire someone who is undocumented, but that's not the case for a landlord when it comes to choosing renters, says Moloy Good, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. Immigration authorities won't penalize an Oregon landlord who rents to someone here illegally, Good says.

Failing 'that test'

Landlords are free to rent to whoever they want, based on U.S. freedom of contract law, says Michael Dale, a lawyer who represents immigrants in employment cases, though he doesn't take housing cases. 'Freedom of contract means you can deal with whoever you want to,' says Dale, executive director of the Northwest Workers Justice Project in Portland.

Some landlords will say privately that they prefer to rent to illegal immigrants, who often are model tenants because they don't want to draw attention to themselves and possibly be deported. Often they'll pay rent on time and in cash.

Other landlords prefer not to rent to illegal immigrants, for moral or business reasons.

'We don't knowingly accept them,' says Tom Brenneke, president of Portland's Guardian Real Estate Services, one of the region's largest apartment managers and owners.

Guardian has strong training and other policies in place to assure all tenant prospects are treated equally, Brenneke says. The company checks the validity of every applicant's Social Security number, and if an applicant gives a false Social Security number, they can't rent from Guardian.

'We just don't accept people who fail that test,' Brenneke says. 'We're basically saying you lied about your ID, and you're out.

'For selfish business reasons, you can't chase somebody for a bad debt if they have a bad Social Security number,' he says. 'You've got no ability to determine what their criminal background is; you really don't know who they are.'

Over the line

Civil rights advocates say immigration status has no bearing on whether someone makes a good tenant, and shouldn't be a factor. They warn that trying to weed out renters because of their questionable legal status can be tricky to do without discriminating against people.

Some federal housing subsidy programs bar benefits to illegal immigrants. However, the federal programs recognize that families may include a mix of people here legally and illegally. So if only three members of a five-person family can prove they are here legally, the family might qualify for 60 percent of the ordinary subsidy for a family of five.

'The spouse of a person here illegally may be here legally, and their kids may be here legally. They need a place to live,' Dale says.

Dale notes there's no law saying a landlord can't discriminate against someone because they are not here legally. But as a result, the landlord could 'slip over the line' and discriminate against someone based on their national origin, he says, which is a protected class under federal fair housing law.

If an alleged victim of housing discrimination based on race or national origin files a complaint against a landlord, BOLI will investigate the claim, Estabrook says, even if the person isn't in the country legally. 'That's not a consideration for us,' he says.

BOLI resumed housing discrimination investigations in April 2008, after Oregon's law was amended to be in sync with federal fair housing law. Since then, BOLI has handled 326 cases of alleged housing discrimination, Estabrook says.

Of those, 37 complainants cited discrimination based on national origin.