TWO NEW NATIONAL REPORTS ON HOUSING discrimination indicate that complaints have increased in the past year, and that the overwhelming majority of housing discrimination is never even reported. Plus, one report detailed “striking and pervasive” discriminatory behavior by real estate agents, who foster segregation by illegally steering minorities away from predominantly white neighborhoods.

The “2005 State of Fair Housing Report,” issued in April by HUD, reported a total of 9,187 housing discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2004 to HUD and its state and local partner agencies, a 13 percent increase over the previous year. At the same time, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), a consortium of private, nonprofit fair housing organizations and civil rights groups, reported an additional 18,094 complaints to 80 member agencies nationwide, up 6.3 percent from the year before.

Both organizations investigate complaints across a broad spectrum of housing-related industries, including real estate firms, mortgage lenders, and insurance companies. HUD reports that about a third of its complaints are settled between the complainant and the respondent or conciliated in an agreement approved by HUD and enforceable by the Department of Justice.

Even with the increases, however, NFHA estimates that the complaints account for less than 1 percent of the instances of housing discrimination that occur annually.

“It's a constant education process,” says Robert Walker, director of HUD's Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Education and Outreach Division. “A lot of people don't know they've been discriminated against.”

After two years of testing in 12 metropolitan areas, NFHA said it would file administrative complaints against several real estate firms, starting with an Atlanta firm. NFHA charged that agents with the firm:

  • Made discriminatory comments about minorities to white buyers;
  • Required minority buyers to prove they had financing before they could look at houses but made no such requirement of white buyers;
  • Told white buyers to avoid particular neighborhoods because of poor-performing schools but showed houses to minority buyers in the same neighborhoods without mentioning the schools, and;
  • Did not show minority buyers houses in predominantly white neighborhoods.
  • “This behavior, repeated over and over again throughout the nation, clearly contributes to our segregated living patterns,” the report says.

    The NFHA report acknowledges that the behavior might be widespread but says it's certainly not condoned by the industry. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) trains consistently about the Fair Housing Act and emphasizes nondiscrimination in its code of ethics, the report says.

    “Unfortunately, you can't control the minds of everyone, but we certainly make them aware of the law,” says Nan Roytberg, associate counsel for NAR. “We continue to talk about education and increase the diversity of our membership; 25 percent of the growth of our membership is minorities. Obviously, we continue to encourage anyone who believes a member has discriminated to bring an ethics complaint to the local association.”

    As HUD expands its education and outreach activities, it expects the number of complaints to increase. In preparation, HUD opened the National Fair Housing Training Academy at Howard University in Washington in August 2004 to train housing discrimination investigators. The five-week academy covers such issues as the psychological impact of discrimination, fair housing law and ethics, critical thinking, discovery techniques, evidence gathering, and litigation training. In addition to training staff at HUD and its partner agencies, the academy also hopes to accommodate other housing professionals.