Privilege and Housing Discrimination

In what seems like a second full-time job, I have spent much of the last few weeks house hunting in the Denver area.  Holy cow has it been a pain in the butt.  Denver has one of the highest occupancy rates in the U.S., with less than 5% of housing available for purchase or rent at any given time.  For me, that has meant that with most places I called to visit or fill out a housing application, there seem to be 10-15 other people competing for the same space.  Thus, I have spent tons of time chasing down dead-ends, all the while getting more and more frustrated and worried that I wouldn’t be able to find something I like before moving out of my apartment in less than two weeks.

Fortunately, though, my housemates and I think we’ve found a place that we can love.  Though it will take some TLC, we should be able to comfortably live in a space with a garden and a back yard for the pup to run around.  Whew.

As I toasted my housemates last night in celebration of finding a place (though I should cross my fingers as credit checks still have to go through and the lease must be signed), I couldn’t help but say, “As difficult as that process was, we really had it easy!  Think of how much harder that would have been if my skin was brown!”

We, three white dudes with college educations and stable jobs, then started rattling off all of the aspects of identity that would have made finding housing so much more difficult: race, ability, education, employment, credit history, immigration status, ability to speak English fluently, sexual orientation (or perceived sexual orientation), religion.  All of these and more can affect one’s ability to find housing.

Though Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency in charge of enforcing fair housing laws, estimates that there are more than 2 million instances of illegal housing discrimination each year, very few of them are reported.  After all, how are you supposed to prove that you didn’t get that house because of your ability or race?  It’s tough!  Nonetheless, in 2008, HUD received more than 10,500 discrimination complaints.  44% of those complaints were because of a protected “disability” of some kind, and 35% of them were because of race.

The Fair Housing Act (as amended in 1988) prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and national origin (note that it is actually legal under federal housing law to discriminate based on sexual orientation).  The most common form of such discrimination is against differently-abled folks.  The act requires reasonable exemptions to housing rules (allowing a seeing-eye dog in a pet-free establishment) or reasonable access-related modifications (that the tenant must pay for), yet many landlords still see this as too much of a hassle, so housing discrimination persists.

When we met our (hopefully) future landlord last night, he really seemed to like us.  Now, he may have just liked us because we’re personable guys and because we want to add value to the property by starting a garden, but there’s also a good chance that there was more.  After all, he was a white guy with an education, and we’re all white guys with an education.  Whether he realizes it or acknowledges it, our race very-well may have played a role in our finding housing, particularly since we were looking in an area that is traditionally-Latino.  That’s not meant to be an accusation or indictment of this very nice man.  Instead, it’s food for thought about privilege.

After all, my housemates and I have an incredible amount of privilege, and we would be naive to assume that this privilege does not benefit us when we apply for housing.  Undoubtedly our racial privilege, our class privilege, our heterosexual male privilege (as he felt comfortable making jokes about bringing girls back to the place), our ability privilege, and countless other privileges undoubtedly played a role in our making this property-owner feel comfortable with us.

This is exactly why the concept of Change from Within is vital to any social justice movement.  After all, the laws against housing discrimination have been on the books for quite a while now, yet those who, only 50 years ago, put up “Whites Only” signs in their neighborhoods had kids and passed along many of their beliefs.  We have to get at the root causes of housing discrimination (or any injustice) to deal with the problem.  Simply passing legislation (though important) won’t do it.

In the words of Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr, “You don’t have to talk like the Klan to think like the Klan.”  We need to investigate the ways that we all have the ability or tendency to think like the Klan in order to uproot the deep-seated prejudices that might, for instance, encourage us to choose a white family over a Latino family in a housing application.  Through such a commitment to change within ourselves, we can dismantle the systems of oppression that our simple prejudices uphold on a daily basis.


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