An undercover investigation of area housing providers turned up dozens of examples of criminal background checks being applied unevenly to weed out prospective renters based on race, according to a report released Monday by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
Over two months this summer, 50 black and white people posed as potential renters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes to inquire about rental housing availability and landlords’ criminal background policies.
Black renters met with discrimination in half of the tests, the organization reported. In some cases, preferential treatment was offered to white renters, such as granting exemptions to normal background check policies as well as waiving fees or the background check altogether.
The testing was done to determine whether housing providers would treat prospective tenants with criminal records differently based on race, even when testers were from similar backgrounds, including income levels, career paths and past rental histories.
The report recommended a number of reforms for officials in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. Those include ordinances to improve the accuracy of criminal records used to screen applicants for housing; requiring housing providers to provide a written reason when a rental application is denied; and providing applicants with a copy of the landlord’s criminal background policy and a copy of any screening report that was used as the basis for denial.
The group’s latest investigation comes at a time when housing costs in New Orleans have climbed steadily, up nearly 50 percent from just before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Real estate forecasters say sale prices continue to rise in the city, coupled with a dwindling inventory.
Last year, the Fair Housing Action Center published the findings of a four-month investigation that turned up evidence of racial discrimination in some of the city’s well-off neighborhoods, including Lakeview and East Carrollton.
Overall, that report said, black renters faced discrimination in 44 percent of the tests the group conducted, such as not hearing back from the same landlords as the white subjects or getting the runaround when they did.
In the latest report, the group’s testing on the east bank of Jefferson Parish found allegations of racial discrimination in 16 out of 24 test cases, compared with nine out of 25 cases in New Orleans.
“The results just continue to show that systemic racial discrimination remains a very real barrier and a very substantial barrier to equal housing opportunities for African-Americans here in the city,” said the group’s executive director, Cashauna Hill.
That’s especially troubling for black residents, a segment that makes up 32 percent of the state’s population and two-thirds of its prison population, Hill said. The report noted that high incarceration rates ultimately lead to problems for families seeking stable housing, and that issue can be exasperated by unequally applied background screening policies.
“You have people of color who are fighting for small numbers of housing units,” Hill said, “and they’re further pushed to the margins by these kinds of policies that offer leniency or favor white testers and don’t allow the same access for African-Americans.”
The group’s investigation found that criminal background check policies were unevenly based on the prospective renter’s race. Each test subject was assigned similar misdemeanor or felony convictions.
Among the 50 tests, black renters with a criminal record experienced worse treatment half of the time, the report said. The investigation found that 42 percent of housing providers discriminated against black renters in the way they explained or applied screening policies.
Examples of racial discrimination included offering more lenient policies to white renters, being more encouraging to prospective white tenants and making exceptions to existing rental policies for white tenants but not for black tenants.
“This investigation shows that involvement in the criminal justice system for people of color has continuing effects on access to housing that undoubtedly do not end once a ‘debt to society’ has been paid,” the report said.
White test subjects received significantly better customer service about 28 percent of the time, the report found. That included steering white renters to more lenient screening policies or offering advice on how to navigate the rental application process.
In 29 instances, housing providers were ambiguous when describing their screening policies, an issue that the report blamed either on a lack of training or on discretionary policies.
The tests also turned up nine instances when encouraging comments were offered to white renters but not to their black counterparts, and four times when the comments were intended to steer black renters away from the property. On four occasions, white renters were offered better deals than were offered to their black counterparts, such as a lower rent or deposit.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.