Jul 9, 2012

Round and Round the “Steering” Wheel Goes for Allentown, Pennsylvania

As we have reported previously, discrimination is alive and well in our communities, as the community of Allentown, Pennsylvania, discovered. The Morning Call, a local newspaper, reports that a housing “sting” operation revealed that real estate agents treated white and minority home buyers differently in 73 percent of cases, steering white buyers to the suburbs and minorities to the city, even when they each had the same job history and income.

These actions, known as “steering”, are illegal under the federal fair housing act. County officials state that this practice could have damaged Allentown's economic development for decades, draining income and diversity from city neighborhoods.

The Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, with Allentown's help, organized the fair housing test after years of hearing anecdotes of housing discrimination, said Alan Jennings, executive director of the CACLV. "Next time, we're not going to hold a press conference," Mayor Ed Pawlowski said. “...[W]e're going to file federal charges."

The Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia set up 33 tests between March 2011 and December 2011 — 22 by phone and 11 in person — that had one white buyer and one minority buyer asking to look at homes in Allentown.

Other than race or ethnicity, each buyer was identical on paper, with the same income level, employment history and number of household residents.

But the Fair Housing Council said in nearly three-fourths of cases — 24 tests — treatment varied by race. Only in one test were home buyers treated similarly. Eight cases were inconclusive.

"We're standing here over a century later and we're still talking about fighting unfair practices — practices we thought had gone by the wayside because of laws that exist," said Dan Boskett, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Meanwhile, Ryan Conrad, the CEO of the Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors, stood alongside Jennings and the mayor, promising the association would work to educate the nearly 2,000 licensed agents in the Lehigh Valley.

Conrad said there is a "zero tolerance to noncompliance" and that the association is taking these findings "very seriously."

He said the association will ask members to sign and display a pledge vowing compliance with federal fair housing laws. The association will also host a fair housing forum, launch a publication for consumers informing them of their rights and establish a minority task force.

A slap on the wrist seems like light punishment, but the threat of a suit in federal court should change the direction in which the housing market in Allentown is headed.