Sep 14, 2011

Hard Times in the Big Easy for New Orleans Landlord

The ongoing effort to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, some six years ago, continues, but all has not been well on the path to recovery.

A few months ago, we posted a story on “The Road Home”, a program which would put thousands of people in newly-constructed homes, but the program was not without its’ faults. This time, however, residents are fighting back against housing discrimination.

The Times-Picayune published news in the beginning of this month stating that a group of New Orleans landlords agreed to pay around $70,000 in damages and penalties to settle various suits against them by prospective tenants. Read the story here.

These lawsuits alleged that the landlords denied housing to African-Americans at an apartment building which makes it ripe for a Fair Housing Act claim. The lawsuit alleges that Betty Bouchon, the building manager, failed to return calls from African-American testers while returning phone calls from white testers, made statements to white testers indicating that she would not rent to black people, and falsely told an African-American tester than an apartment was not available for rent when in fact it was available. One can imagine that the sting was similar to this commercial. See also Stanford professor John Baugh's study on voice recognition discrimination.

These “tests”, as they are called, have proved instrumental in the fight against housing discrimination, ever since the Fair Housing Act was passed in the late 60’s. Tests involve “control” groups, usually Caucasian men and women, and “experimental” groups, usually consisting of men and women of varying ethnic and racial heritage. The “experimental” groups usually walk in, or otherwise inquire about a property for rent, and the landlord’s response is noted. If the racial or ethnically diverse individual is turned down, a Caucasian person is sent in.

"In these challenging economic times, it is more important than ever that all Americans be able to rent or buy housing they can afford, and not face discrimination because of the color of their skin," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement.

Although the settlement is awaiting approval from a federal circuit court judge in Louisiana, the Defendants, Betty Bouchon, the Bouchon Limited Family Partnership and Sapphire Corp., may also benefit from this settlement, as the consequences may be financially grave for some defendants who lose fair housing cases.

Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants will pay $50,000 to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and $20,000 in civil penalties to the United States. The settlement also requires the defendants to adopt non-discriminatory policies, keep detailed records of inquiries from prospective tenants and of rental transactions, and submit periodic reports over the four-year term of the settlement.