Racism, Renting, and Retaliation

In light of current events, I want to share three incidents involving racial discrimination in the housing context. The first, technically, would not be classified as housing discrimination because it involved a short stay at a motel. But I want to share it anyway, so that we can learn from what people of color go through when simply trying to find a place to lay their head.

“Vacancy”

When my brother’s best friend (we’ll call him Paul) finished his time in the military, the last thing that he wanted to do was to spend one more night in the barracks. As such, he gathered all of his stuff and walked to a local motel. The motel had a “vacancy” sign lit up, so he knew he was in luck.

As Paul walked into the door, the clerk asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’d like to get a room for tonight,” said Paul.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any vacancy,” said the clerk.
“But the sign outside says that you have vacancy,” said Paul.
“I don’t know why that sign is on,” said the clerk as he reached over to turn it off. “But we don’t have any vacancy.”
Paul, a black American, was in disbelief. But he turned and walked out the door and back to the barracks. After 100 yards or so, Paul turned around just in time to see the “no vacancy” sign switch to “vacancy.”

“I was calling about the ad in the paper.”

One of my best friends (I’ll call him Michael) and I were once talking. At the time, Michael was looking for a new apartment. At the time, there were plenty of rentals in his economic range.
“It’s tough to find an apartment,” Michael said to me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I have to call at least three or four apartments every time before I ever get an apartment that I can look at,” said Michael.
“Are you just randomly calling places?”
“No, they all are advertising that they have vacancies, but when I call, they say that they are already gone.”
When I was younger and a renter, I had never experienced this phenomenon. Every time an apartment complex was advertising a vacancy and I called, I was always invited to come look at the available apartment.
But Michael explained to me that as a black man, he always had difficulty finding an apartment, even when they were advertised for rent. It didn’t take long, and I realized that Michael was likely the victim of what is known as linguistic profiling.
Linguistic profiling is the practice of listening to a person’s voice for cues as to whether that person is white, black, or some other race or protected characteristic. It’s wrong, but it’s tough to prove. But what is happening is that the person who is calling about the vacancy is being denied a housing opportunity because of his or her race (or other protected category).
If you think that you are the victim of linguistic profiling, then one of the practical things that you can do is to have someone else call shortly after you’ve called about the opening. Obviously, if you think that you are being treated differently because of your race, then it makes sense to have someone else call who is a different race from you. Otherwise, they might run into the same problem.

“We don’t like your kind around here.”

One of the first fair housing cases that I took involved a white woman. The woman was divorced. She and her husband had one child, who was then a teenager. The child would spend the school year with his mom and summer with his dad.

My client began looking for a new apartment during the summer. The landlord liked her and wanted to rent an apartment to her. She informed the landlord that her son would be living with her during the school year. “That’s no problem,” said the landlord. Shortly thereafter, my client moved into her new place.

Before long, summer rolled around, and her son came home. Her son, incidentally, was half white and half black.

Not long after her son moved in with her, my client saw the manager. He wanted to talk to her. “”So I saw your son the other day and I see your son is black!”

“Yes, why?,” said my client.

“That explains why I’ve seen blacks go to your house before.”

On another day, the landlord accused my client of having people come in and out of her apartment while she was gone to work. When she denied the charge, the landlord replied:
“I don’t want your kind of people around here. All of the neighbors over on your side have complained because they are scared of the blacks and your son is black and I can’t have my other tenants leaving because of you and your son and black friends or whatever they are!”

In disbelief, my client responded:
“My son is an A-B student that works hard in school, has never been in trouble with the law, and that we never really see our neighbors that much because we keep to ourselves.” She then added that she did not believe that was the truth or the reason.

“Your son is a black teenage boy and they are known to be gang members and I don’t care what you say you won’t convince me otherwise because I know how ‘they’ are. I don’t want any teenagers on my property and the black ones especially they are the most trouble.”

My client then stated to the landlord that his current statements and prior similar statements that he had made amounted to racial and age discrimination. The landlord snickered and said to her, “Well, you’d have to prove it, and you won’t be able to, so you can just move and let it be; you can’t touch me.”

It wasn’t long, and the landlord served a 30-day Notice to Terminate my client’s tenancy. Needless to say, we filed a lawsuit and were able to eventually reach a settlement. That case, however, has remain etched in my memory due to the landlord’s blatant racism.

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Stuart E. Fagan

Fair housing litigator with over 25 years' experience accepting cases in California.