HUD Aide Touts Anti-Bias Testing : But Proposal Strongly Opposed by Realtors' Group

Times Staff Writer

They've had FHAP. They're trying to get FHIP. They hope they won't flop.

That's how Deborah Gore Dean, a surprisingly plain-talking bureaucrat, describes what her department has been doing while congressmen have been taking their leaves before returning to Capitol Hill in September.

The bright 30-year-old, who is executive assistant to Samuel R. Pierce, secretary of housing and urban development, took the red-eye special to Los Angeles to talk about FHIP and FHAP as part of Pierce's efforts to get FHIP passed.

Before Congress took its break, she said, "Secretary Pierce called every member of the House and told them that FHIP is the most important thing he has been doing personally since he came to HUD." Pierce came to HUD in 1981.

FHAP (Fair Housing Assistance Program), passed in 1979, has provided $3.7 million a year to Community Housing Resource Boards (or local fair housing groups) for educating and counseling since 1980.

FHIP (Fair Housing Initiative Program) would provide an additional $3 million a year for education but would also put some teeth into enforcing the housing portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"It's about time," Dean sighed.

During a time when budget cuts are the rule, Pierce persuaded the Reagan Administration to ask Congress for a total of $10 million a year through FHIP to help state and local fair housing agencies "sponsor innovative enforcement projects," educate the general public and housing industry groups, and conduct investigations, or tests, to see if cases of housing discrimination exist. Of the $10 million, $4 million would be allocated for testing.

To date, there have been no federal funds for testing housing discrimination, and testing is required to show "pattern and practice" for the Department of Justice to file suit. Testing is even necessary as evidence in civil cases where awards have been getting increasingly larger during the past four years.

(Last year, two private litigants each received $250,000 in New York because they had been denied apartments. By contrast, a limit of $1,000 may be paid to plaintiffs in housing discrimination cases filed by the Department of Justice. "That's chicken feed," Dean said, describing fair housing amendments that have been proposed to increase the penalties to $50,000 for the first offense and up to $100,000 for the second.)

Despite the apparent importance of testing, it is the most controversial provision of FHIP, and it has generated strong opposition from the powerful National Assn. of Realtors.

William D. North, the organization's senior vice president and general counsel, called for FHIP rejection because the measure would provide, he said, for uncontrolled, unprofessional testing of real estate agents' services to minority home buyers.

"The national association is not opposed to testing," he testified before House and Senate subcommittees, according to the 670,000-member trade group's newspaper, "but it is vigorously opposed to the unsupervised, unstandardized, subjective and arbitrary testing program which HUD proposed this Congress finance. This program contemplates nothing less than the creation of a body of private and community vigilantes vested with a license to harass, coerce and even destroy legitimate real estate practitioners in the name of fair-housing testing.

"If testing is to be fair and effective, it must be uniform, unbiased, professional and consistent. The testers must be legally liable for misconduct and should not be provided with an incentive to find discrimination."

Despite this opposition, the House's subcommittee on Housing and Community Development approved FHIP at a meeting crowded with realtors.

"Ninety-five per cent of the time the realtors are on target about housing industry issues, but on this one, we part company," Dean emphasized. "They want the federal government to write standards, saying what the person doing the testing should wear, what questions should be asked and so on, but . . . it would take us years to write such standards.

"Anyway, a court can throw out a test if the court thinks it is not acceptable, and besides, these (fair housing) organizations have been conducting tests for 20 years without any problems. The realtors just want to add 10 years to the process (of getting FHIP approved)."

She said testing has been working like this:

--For evidence in court, most states require two testers. One tester would be a minority. The other would be white. Otherwise, their descriptions would be the same.

--Each tester might claim that she is a divorced attorney who makes $40,000 a year and has two children, but one tester would be white while the other is, say, black.

--If the white woman is told that a rental would be $300 a month and the black one is told that the landlord left out a 0 in the ad and it's really $3,000 a month, that could be enough evidence to take the case to court.

"The federal government wants to fund testing," she said, "because we feel that it is crucial" to the enforcement of fair housing laws.

Pierce has bemoaned the fact that housing discrimination "continues to plague" the nation. At the annual installation in Los Angeles of the National Assn. of Real Estate Brokers (a minority trade association based in Washington), Dean said, "I certainly don't have to tell this audience that housing discrimination is still very much part of our daily national life in spite of the fact that our federal fair housing legislation was passed over 17 years ago."

She told the group that one of HUD's recent studies found "that minorities searching for housing face a 42% chance of encountering discrimination when purchasing a home and a 72% chance when renting."

She views FHIP as a "major step to aid and expand private, fair-housing enforcement efforts using testing," that she termed "a very useful tool" and "a highly productive means of identifying and developing hard evidence concerning the more blatant and pervasive forms of unlawful discrimination."

Few people outside of Congress have known much about FHIP until now, she said. After all, it is still just a proposal. It is still going, as Dean colorfully phrased it, "through the birth canal." It is still making its way through Congress. And it still has a way to go.

As Dean told the minority realtors, "After a long battle, we finally got our Fair Housing Initiatives Program through the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs in the House of Representatives, but this is only a preliminary step. It also has to pass on the floor of the House and will have to endure the same process in the Senate and then probably go to a conference committee before facing a second final vote in both houses.

"And there are powerful forces in the industry committed to seeing that this legislation never sees the light of day."

But she assured the realtors that HUD is fighting for FHIP "every step of the way."

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