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Testing for Discrimination

Posted on 15. Apr, 2019 by

Image of sign that reads “For Rent” with houses in the background.

At GNOFHAC, we use testing as a tool to enforce fair housing laws. Testing is done by trained mystery shoppers who take on the role of a prospective homeowner or renter for the purpose of gathering information to identify unlawful discrimination and to ensure that individuals or companies are in compliance with the law.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that testers are harmed by discrimination and can sue under the Fair Housing Act. After considering the case Havens Realty Corporation vs. Coleman–during which a Black tester was told there were no vacancies at an apartment complex, while the white tester was told there were several units available–the court determined that not only had the Black tester been harmed by the discrimination, but that both testers could likely show that they had been harmed  “on the ground that the landlord’s policies deprived each the chance to live in an integrated community.”

At GNOFHAC, testing helps us see many different patterns of discrimination against various groups. Testing has shown, for example, that criminal background screening policies are frequently used as a covert form of racial discrimination.

We were inspired by New York Fair Housing Justice Center’s idea to publish the stories of some of the testers who make this work possible (their series is called Acting for Justice). Read on to learn about one of our tester’s experiences on the job.

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“It’s like acting,” T.R. said of testing for GNOFHAC. “Like when you have to eat stuff that you don’t actually eat sometimes, and pretend to like it.”

T.R. found out about Fair Housing testing through a GNOFHAC First Time Homebuyers class. “I didn’t know people did this stuff. I didn’t have any idea,” T.R. said. She felt compelled to join our effort to combat housing discrimination with the opportunity to make some extra money along the way.

T.R.’s experiences as an African American tester run the gamut. When asked about tests that were particularly memorable, T.R. said, “Going to see an apartment that had a wet mattress on the floor. Being called an animal in the zoo. That sticks out. Seeing some really nice apartments that I wouldn’t actually mind renting if I needed an apartment–that sticks out. The big thing that sticks out, though, is when I go somewhere that’s dirty, that’s firthy, that I would never rent even if it was free. I think about all of the places where I literally was screaming on the inside.”

Mostly, though, T.R. said tests seem normal, in part because our investigators do not disclose what type of discrimination we are testing for to our testers ahead of time. So, T.R. said, “it’s always shocking to find out that actually something [discriminatory] happened.”

T.R. hopes that her work as a tester will help “prevent people from treating people differently because of who they are, their race; or who they believe they are, because all [a housing provider] gets is the surface. If you’re renting an apartment and we all have money and we can pay the rent, then I don’t know what else you’re looking for.”

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We’re always looking for more testers!  You can learn more about the opportunity to become a tester here: http://www.gnofairhousing.org/participate/become-a-tester/.

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