By Joanne Zuhl
The Portland Housing Bureau says it stands by its Fair Housing Action plan, even as the credibility of the fair housing survey fanned its creation it has been cast into doubt.
“We’re very concerned,” says Margaret Van Vliet, talking about the state’s critical review of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon’s handling of a series of tests in Portland.
“I hope it doesn’t cause anyone to believe that there isn’t actually a problem (with discrimination),” Van Vliet said. “I know that there’s a big problem out there and I don’t want that undermined by this.”
Today, Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries announced it has dismissed the only complaint by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon resulting from last year’s audit of fair housing practices in Portland. BOLI released the decision today after a contentious give and take with FHCO over the testing methodology that ultimately implicated Cascade Community Management in treating potential renters differently based on their national origin.
BOLI, the statewide agency that enforces housing law and civil rights, said the testing in the report “does not rise to a level sufficient for serious consideration of a Commissioner’s complaint.”
In February, the FHCO presented the city with its results of 50 housing tests: Out of those 50 tests, the Fair Housing Council reported finding discrimination based on race or national origin in more than 32. Among the disparities in treatment were African-Americans and Latinos being told higher movie-in costs and higher rent, and additional costs that were not applied to white applicants.
When it was disclosed in April, the audit caused a fury among housing advocates and critics alike. Fish came under attack for not releasing publicly the results and the targets of the audit sooner, and for appearing lax on enforcement against the alleged offenders. The results of the survey were turned over to BOLI for further investigation and to determine if they were substantial enough to proceed with a legal case.
By then, the Oregon Senate Republicans had jumped into the fray with a letter to Attorney General John Kroger and Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian calling for more aggressive investigating and prosecuting violations of fair housing laws. Avakian fired back, defending the work of BOLI and FHCO.
In June, in an open meeting at City Hall, City Commissioner Nick Fish unveiled his new fair housing action plan. He was joined by Avakian and John Trasvina, the assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD. The plan is set for a council vote in September.
The plan outlined in June includes a mix of enforcement, education and outreach, coupled with annual fair housing audits covering more protected classes than FHCO’s initial survey. All results would be referred to the Civil Rights Division of BOLI for further action. It also includes streamlining the intake and referral process, in collaboration with many organizations and government agencies.
All of this would be overseen by a new Fair Housing Advocacy Committee, which will review data on rental processes, and ensure that reports and complaints are sent to BOLI for enforcement.
But the thunder behind this plan began to wane after the city and BOLI began reviewing the data and methodology behind the FHCO’s survey. Among their concerns were that many of the tests were conducted over the phone, were inconsistent with FHCO’s own standards, and that they were simply too limited in scope to be conclusive.
By June, only one formal complaint had moved forward to BOLI as a result of the FHCO’s survey. And when BOLI and the city raised questions about the methodology of the testing, FHCO refused to turn over the additional documents, saying they included trade secrets. Eventually, BOLI responded on June 22 with a subpoena for the information, to which FHCO complied.
On Aug. 9, the city suspended contract negotiations with FHCO for the coming year.
“Our concerns are based on interactions and communications with staff, feedback from our partners, and a preliminary review of the audit tests and supporting data,” wrote Portland Housing Bureau Director Margaret Van Vliet in a letter to FHCO Executive Director Moloy Good. Van Vliet said the city had concerns over FHCO’s capacity to perform the scope of the work moving forward, and that those concerns have been passed on to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking it to provide technical assistance with auditing and capacity building moving forward.
Van Vliet says the city wants to see FHCO brought up to capacity, with proper training, staff and accountability.
“It’s in our interest to help this organization be a high-performing nonprofit that serves its public mission,” Van Vliet told Street Roots. “We’re disappointed in the results, but we’re not going to throw them under the bus. We have not given up on them.”
(Van Vliet announced on Aug. 12 that she would be leaving the Portland Housing Bureau to head up the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department, the state’s housing finance agency.)
This year, the Fair Housing Council has conducted audits of fair housing practices in multiple districts, including in Polk, Umatilla, Clatsop, Tillamook, Lincoln and Washington counties, and the cities of Eugene, Corvallis, Beaverton and Klamath Falls — all resulting in evidence of discrimination much higher than standard complaint rates.
Moloy Good said he stands by the methodology used by his organization in showing different treatment to inquiring renters. He told Street Roots that the survey conducted for the city was never intended to stand on its own in a complaint process, but was rather a snapshot of what was going on for the city’s reference in crafting a plan.
“There has been a lot of misunderstanding about what the original intent of the study was, and what can be done with it now that it has been completed — especially with the public disclosure of who the targets were,” Good said. “That made it harder for us to move forward.”
Good said that FHCO typically conducts multiple tests and interviews before filing a complaint, however, they felt they had substantial evidence against Cascade.
“I went through their summary report,” Good said of BOLI’s findings. “There are some times where (BOLI) just saw it differently than we did,” Good said. “We do believe that the results show different treatment, which is what we reported.”
Federal and state law lists a spectrum of “protected classes” as a measure of including all individuals and prohibiting discrimination of any category. Federally protected classes include race, color, national origin, religion, gender, familial status and disability. Oregon goes further in protecting marital status, legal sources of income and sexual orientation and gender identity. More recently, domestic violence survivors have also been listed as a protected class.
Good disputes the notion that his organization has an interest in finding housing discrimination in its surveys as a means of self –preservation.
“Our mission is to eliminate illegal housing discrimination, and that means we have to look for it everywhere, and sometimes that makes people feel uncomfortable. But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t doing that. Nothing would make me happier to do one of these studies and find no different treatment.”