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City reboots housing bias study

State review showed that tests claiming racism by landlords were flawed, unreliable
by: Nick Fochtman Larry Southall, who owns a few rental units, says Portland landlords were unfairly tarnished by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon's 2010-11 study of bias among landlords, and wants another, independent group hired to do the 2012 study. 

Portland landlords might want to be on their best behavior.

The Portland Housing Bureau is commissioning another study of fair-housing law compliance and bias among the city's landlords, after tossing out the results of last year's much-maligned test.

'The testing we got before was not reliable,' says City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the housing bureau. 'We're doing a complete reset.'

In the 2010-11 test, the city hired the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, a Portland nonprofit advocacy group, to send out white, black and Latino testers, who separately inquired about vacant apartments. The fair housing council reported that in more than half the tests, rental agents treated the black and Latino applicants differently than the white applicants, such as by quoting higher deposits for the people of color.

'The main conclusion we draw is that race and national-origin discrimination continue to haunt us,' concluded Moloy Good, who was then executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, after the study results were released.

The study caused a political firestorm. Some housing activists, news media and Republican state senators bashed the city for failing to go after racist landlords uncovered by the study. Others questioned the high level of discrimination the study revealed, and said landlords were being unfairly tarnished.

Under pressure to take enforcement action, Fish took the study results to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, which handles housing discrimination cases. Fish and the city housing bureau also issued letters to several property management companies, warning them they might be targets of investigations.

The dispute became heavily politicized, and the fair housing council's sloppy procedures ultimately overshadowed its core findings.

Errors mount

For starters, the fair housing council incorrectly tied three property management companies to the alleged unfair treatment of tenants, forcing a quick retraction by Fish and the housing bureau.

The Fair Housing Council of Oregon, formed in 1990 to promote enforcement of the 1968 U.S. Fair Housing Act, refused to release documentation of alleged discrimination. Under political and media pressure, the state Bureau of Labor and Industries wound up obtaining those records via subpoena.

After a review, BOLI concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to mount enforcement actions against any of the landlords, though there were some cases to pursue upon follow-up testing.

BOLI's analyst, in a draft report released to the media, also wrote that several of the housing council's contentions against rental agents were overstated or misconstrued.

'In some cases, the exact opposite of what the testers wrote were used by the fair housing council,' says Deborah Imse, executive director of the Metro Multifamily Housing Association, which represents the Portland area's largest landlords.

Last August, the Portland Housing Bureau suspended negotiation of its annual contract with the fair housing council, citing concerns about its work.

In response to mounting criticism, the housing council hired a veteran fair housing investigator, Anne Houghtaling of the HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, Ill., asking her to conduct an independent review of its test. Houghtaling was somewhat critical of some of the council's procedures, and found 'notable errors' in how it construed two of its 50 tests. However, she validated its testing procedures and its main finding - that subtle forms of housing discrimination were uncovered by the study.

Seeking fresh start

Fish vowed to launch a larger campaign to protect tenants from discrimination, and asked advocacy groups and industry representatives to prepare afair housing action plan. As part of that plan, the city recently put out a request for proposals seeking a company or nonprofit to conduct another test of Portland landlord practices.

The new test, unlike the first one, will be designed to help facilitate enforcement actions against any landlords found to violate the Fair Housing Act, Fish says. 'For some of the bad actors, we're prepared to go the enforcement route,' he says.

The study is likely to test for added categories of discrimination, Fish says, noting that the largest number of Fair Housing Act violations these days come against people with disabilities.

Some landlords are nervous that the request for proposals will lead to the fair housing council of Oregon being hired again.

'The local housing community is going to be up in arms if it goes back to the Fair Housing Coalition of Oregon; there's just no credibility there,' says Larry Southall, who owns four rental units. He's active in the Rental Housing Association of Greater Portland, which tends to represent smaller 'mom and pop' landlords.

Southall contends that the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, and similar nonprofits in other states, have an 'ax to grind and a bias' against landlords. He advocates hiring a private company to do the study, but says such firms can't meet the proposal terms because they don't generally get involved in enforcement actions.

Southall says BOLI's review of the housing council's documents shows they'll find the 'slimmest' evidence to support charges of discrimination.

'They have a real conflict of interest as an agency that is paid to promote fair housing and fight discrimination, if they are also paid to go out and prove that discrimination exists,' he says.

Ruptured relationship

Imse has worked closely with Fish and housing advocates, and her group often hires the Fair Housing Council of Oregon to train landlords on Fair Housing Act compliance. However, that changed after she read BOLI's review of the fair housing council's disputed test.

'Our board has suspended our 17-year relationship with the fair housing council because of the analysis that we saw,' Imse says. 'The trust between the two organizations has been severely damaged.'

Imse is part of the committee that crafted the fair housing action plan, and supports the proposal process to commission another test of landlords.

'It's our organization's position that the best choice would be to have a non-advocacy organization do the testing,' Imse says.

LeRoy Patton, board chairman of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, denies a conflict of interest exists between the agency's education and outreach role and its work conducting tests for discrimination. Most of its funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he notes, and HUD routinely works with fair housing councils that perform both roles. HUD also sets the standards that the fair housing council uses for its testing.

Patton disagrees with much of the criticism leveled against his organization, especially by BOLI. 'Personally, I don't have a response, because responding, in my estimation, is admitting a lot of things that we don't agree with,' he says.

However, Patton hopes to patch relations with the Metro Multifamily Housing Association.

Nancy Murray, who sits on the board with Patton, says the fair housing council's test results were largely substantiated by Houghtaling's independent review. Murray says the test was never designed as a scientific study of racist practices by landlords, but was merely a snapshot of a potential problem. The test mostly found subtle forms of differential treatment of minority tenants, Murray says, and those are hard to prosecute.

Murray acknowledges some sloppiness in the fair housing council's study, but says the organization subsequently hired at least two new staff to assure more quality control.

'We own the part that we did wrong,' Murray says. 'We brought bad news to the community and it was not well-received.'

It turns out that the city's break in relations last summer with the fair housing council was short-lived. The Fair Housing Council of Oregon resumed its work for the Portland Housing Bureau on education and training, but not for testing. Negotiations on an annual contract were delayed by the dispute, but a revised annual contract, retroactive to last July 1, is nearly done, says Daniel Ledezma, the Portland Housing Bureau director of equity, policy and communications.

Fish says there's no way the city could bar the fair housing council from submitting a response to the request for proposals, but says the selection will be done by an independent city panel.

'I would think in any contracting process,' he adds, 'you would look at past performance.'

On Thursday, after this story was published in the print edition of the paper, the fair housing council announced it hired a new executive director to replace Moloy Good, Pegge McGuire, who served in the position 2001 to 2007, before Good was hired. Good was asked to stay on as enforcement director for the group.