ORANGE COUNTY VOICES : Time to Recognize Role of Bias in County Housing

Robert A. Slayton is vice chairman of the board of directors of the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, and an assistant professor at Chapman University

Cases are mounting of discrimination based on race, national origin, children, the handicapped and the aged.

In Orange County, land of fruit blossoms and success, housing is becoming a precious commodity. In the case of both rental and home ownership, several barriers are blocking access to the market.

The obstacle most frequently mentioned is price. The current median price of a resale house is more than $240,000; the national median is $103,000.

Thus, we have been bombarded with reports over the last several years about the many county residents who continue to be excluded from the American dream (at least as defined by developers). There are those now-familiar stories of the young couple with two incomes that cannot dream of affording either a down payment or a mortgage note, or the executive who can barely afford a condo here with what she got for her home back East.

But high prices are only one factor that is affecting access to the housing market. In rentals the primary barrier is prejudice. While the papers have highlighted the recent burst of hate crimes in Orange County (38 by late July, in contrast with 16 for all of last year), they have failed to discuss all the other discrimination taking place locally.

In fiscal year 1990-91, for example, the Fair Housing Council of Orange County reported 1,178 complaints regarding bias in housing. The range of issues represented by this load runs the gamut from discrimination based on race and national origin to prejudice against children, against the handicapped and against the aged.

All of Orange County's peoples, furthermore, are affected: Breaking down complainants on the basis of race/ethnicity, the largest group was white/Anglo, followed by blacks and Latinos.

Behind this are all the horrible little stories of how life can be disrupted, how access to the housing market can be denied, in ways that are nonviolent but still so painful. The council's case files abound with situations such as the manager of an apartment complex who decided there were too many black families in his operation (actually, four out of 50). He repeatedly urged two of the black families to move, pointing out how much happier they would be somewhere else.

At one point, he removed one of their daughters from the pool area, referring to her as an "eyesore." In another situation, a manager refused to rent to Mexicans, saying her predecessor had been fired for letting in too many "wetbacks."

And the list of complaints goes on, covering a wide range of abuses. State law bans discrimination against children in housing, but at one apartment that rented for $725 to adults, a family with one child was asked to pay $1,010.

A colleague of mine who is a libertarian has always argued that bias, besides being morally abhorrent, hurts economically. It blocks the market from acting efficiently and prevents those who have earned the right to a decent way of life from achieving it. This is true everywhere, but it seems especially out of place in an area that so extols free enterprise as Orange County.

It is time that the county took all the steps necessary to deal with discrimination in housing and to eliminate barriers based on prejudice and ignorance.

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