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Fair Housing Spotlight: Undercover Testers to Advocacy

In the intricate landscape of fair housing, testing is a tool in the fight against discrimination. Let’s try to demystify the world of testing through the exploration of its process, the advocacy and enforcement that it supports, and the challenges that come with it.


Testing 101  

 

Testing in fair housing is not just the investigation itself; it's a controlled process involving individuals posing as prospective home-seekers.

The Department of Justice defines testing as, “the use of individuals who – without any bona fide intent to rent or purchase housing, purchase a mortgage or vehicle loan, or patronize a place of public accommodation – pose as prospective renters, borrowers, or patrons to gather information. This information may show whether a provider is complying with federal civil rights laws.”  

This undercover approach aims to gather information on potential discriminatory practices, offering insights that may not be clear through other means. Testing is about peeling back layers – a thorough, time-consuming process essential for building a comprehensive case against violators of fair housing laws.  

 

Our Process  

 

When Open Communities receives a complaint or a tip that illegal discrimination may have occurred, where does it go?  

 

As a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-designated private enforcer of fair housing laws, Open Communities has multiple pathways to seek justice. There are many factors to consider when deciding the best plan of action for addressing these scenarios. Testing, while impactful, requires a great deal of planning and resources. This can make the process lengthy, and sometimes our clients just don’t have the time to wait for this type of evidence building.  

 

If the issue has arisen while the client is actively looking for housing, sometimes the most beneficial course could be to contact the housing provider. While we remind housing providers that ignorance of fair housing law is not a valid defense against allegations, there are occasions where it may be most beneficial to our participant to educate the housing provider and help them correct mistakes; this may be appropriate when a small landlord has made a procedural error in the tenant screening process, for instance.  

 

In some cases, testing is necessary to gather evidence of potential discrimination, whether blatant or subtle. Open Communities maintains communication with clients while we draft tests and work with our testers. According to our Director of Fair Housing, Dominic Voz, it’s not always a straight-forward path,

“Many clients we have worked with can attest to the challenges of proving discrimination claims - nonetheless, we strongly encourage every person to take action when they have been harmed by discrimination, and the systems we have can produce real remedies for folks.”  

 When immediate support is not possible, Open Communities plays the role of a guiding force, aiding individuals in finding legal representation, submitting their own complaints to a human rights agency, or connecting them with other organizations equipped to meet their needs.  

 

Where this Leads  

 

The outcome of testing is a spectrum. It might involve educational interventions, corrective actions, policy reforms, or even state and federal lawsuits. Open Communities is in a constant state of refining its investigative processes to best serve participants.

 

Open Communities was recently the plaintiff in a case that shows our adaptation to changing challenges. Open Communities tested for discrimination in an AI leasing assistant system used to respond to individuals in search of housing from a housing provider with thousands of rental units. Open Communities then worked with civil rights attorneys at Soule, Bradtke, and Lambert to file a lawsuit in federal court. See our press release about this case here to learn more.

 

Beyond Testing  

 

The fight against discrimination extends beyond individual instances; it is a collective effort to create fair and equitable communities. Prevention is a focal point for Open Communities, emphasizing the importance of education. Our goal is to disperse information on fair housing to all parties – renters, landlords, etc. – to make sure everyone is informed on the issues, so that renters know their rights and

landlords know the steps to take to ensure violations do not take place.  

 

According to Dominic, we also aim to extend our work outside of our immediate communities,

“housing justice is achievable and necessary at the level of public policy just as it is at the individual level between landlords and tenants. We advocate for tenants' rights, affordable housing investments, zoning reform, and many other housing-related issues.”  

 

What Can You Do? 


For individuals who have experienced housing discrimination, action is imperative. Contacting a HUD-designated organization, like Open Communities, provides a channel for redressal and support. If you would like to schedule a free intake, please contact intake@open-communities.org.


Testing in fair housing serves as a spotlight, revealing hidden discriminatory practices and empowering affected individuals. Whether one is a renter, a landlord, or an observer, advocating for fair housing is a shared responsibility.

 

If interested in becoming a tester for Open Communities, contact Kenya at kbabarbara@open-communities.org for more information. 

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