Mi Casa No Es Su Casa


They are the civil rights equivalents of undercover agents. Carefully trained but armed only with false identities, they set out on the day’s mission: rooting out racism at a grimy apartment building in North Hills.

Barbara, a tall black woman, goes first. Laura, a slender Latina, arrives a few moments later in a separate car.

Their handler--they work for the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council--has assigned them matching roles as single, childless women with similar incomes. One after the other, they approach the apartment manager’s door, posing as would-be renters.


When Barbara knocks, no one answers the door. She turns away. Moments later, Laura is given a tour and offered the apartment. The landlord who greets her so warmly--speaking in Spanish--is a Mexican-born immigrant.

What happened to Barbara and Laura is a troubling twist on the old scourge of housing bias, historically practiced by whites who denied housing to blacks. Now, fair housing groups from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego, in ethnic enclaves from Chicago to New York, report a surge in cases involving immigrants who refuse to rent to people outside their group.

Housing agencies do not track discrimination cases by the landlord’s nationality, but advocates say complaints against immigrant building owners and managers are multiplying, especially in tight markets where renters are at a disadvantage. They also say that prosecutions are rare because conclusive evidence is hard to obtain.

Discrimination by immigrant landlords has surfaced among Cambodians in Long Beach, Latinos in El Monte and Taiwanese in Rosemead. In Tujunga, a Latino family has accused an Armenian landlord of filling vacancies only with Armenians. Across the Valley, in Tarzana, an Irish American has lodged a similar complaint about an Israeli apartment manager.

“You have the Guatemalans versus the Mexicans versus the Salvadorans,” said Sharon Kinlaw, an investigator for the Valley Fair Housing Council.

“Now, it’s rarely a [white American] manager,” she said of violators. “It’s a Hispanic manager or an eastern European manager who’s immigrated. One thing we’re seeing across the board is, no matter if the managers are white, black, Hispanic or Asian, these folks don’t have a clue about state or federal fair housing law.”

Southern California may be the nation’s most diverse region, but its troubles are hardly unique.

Problem Exists in Big Cities

In Chicago, the problem seems to be concentrated in small buildings owned by recent arrivals from eastern Europe. And in New York City, fair housing advocates recently won two $100,000 settlements from Greek-born apartment owners accused of discriminating against blacks. They also settled a similar case for $120,000 that involved Polish Jews accused of bias against Latinos.

During the last decade, segregation has increased among Latinos and Asians in most large cities, according to the 2000 census. Some experts point to discrimination as one reason.

Fair housing groups started receiving complaints against foreign-born landlords about a decade ago. But the problem was not a priority. Throughout the 1990s, advocates were busy with other forms of bias, and the annual budget for federal enforcement nationally never rose much higher than $10 million, even as immigration surged, said Shanna Smith, executive director of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

Housing advocates say the bias among foreign-born landlords can reflect outright racism, but may also stem from ignorance of the law. Activists in immigrant communities say landlords might feel more comfortable renting to people who share their language and culture.

“I don’t consider it the malicious kind of white racism we see against people of color,” Smith said. “It seems to be more of a cultural preference. . . . But it’s still illegal.”

Corinne Sanchez, head of a Valley-based health care agency that serves Mexican immigrants, said: “There’s a lot of fear and ignorance out there. Or maybe [immigrants] see that they’ve been discriminated against for so long that they want to help their own folks.”

Advocates in Los Angeles County say complaints about immigrant landlords make up at least half their race-related cases--and show no signs of abating. The calls stream in from apartment hunters and tenants already in place who say managers have harassed them.

Race discrimination has topped the annual lists of housing complaints logged by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for 10 years, with bias against the disabled and people with children coming in second or third.

Blacks File Most Complaints

Nationwide, blacks file more than 12 times as many race-related complaints as whites, just as they did 10 years ago, according to HUD data. But the number of Latino complainants has more than doubled in the last decade.

Last year, the federal government recorded 2,532 fair housing complaints from black victims, compared with 505 from Latinos and 199 from whites. Those numbers include complaints made to state agencies. Advocates say many incidents go unreported.

With its roots in the civil rights movement, the 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in the sale, rental and financing of housing. It has been expanded to include gender and to protect the disabled and families with children. California also bars housing discrimination based on age, marital status and sexual orientation.

But all those categories can’t seem to eradicate biases brought from every corner of the globe.

The problem is particularly acute in Southern California, where immigration has reshaped hundreds of neighborhoods, often in the space of a few years. Nonwhites now outnumber whites by more than 3 million across the region, according to the 2000 census.

Latinos are the largest ethnic group in both the city and county of Los Angeles. Statewide, no racial or ethnic group forms a majority.

The breathless pace of change has spawned conflicts never imagined by fair housing advocates.

“I’ve heard people saying, ‘Well, he’s from another state [within] Mexico.’ And the apartment manager only rents to people from the same state in Mexico,” said Chancela Al-Mansour, an attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. “Our fair housing laws haven’t even anticipated that.” Courts would nonetheless consider such behavior illegal.

In San Diego, complaints against immigrant landlords surfaced two years ago. First it was Latino owners who appeared to be discriminating, said Mary Scott Knoll, head of the Fair Housing Council of San Diego. Then it was the Filipinos. Then the Vietnamese.

In some regions, advocates have noticed that some immigrants still appear to be excluding only blacks.

“We have communities who have become extremely multicultural and multiethnic, but they are still without blacks,” said Karen Webber, executive director of the Open Housing Center in New York.

‘Tests’ Uncover Racial Bias

In the last two years, fair housing groups “tested” Los Angeles neighborhoods undergoing rapid demographic change. The testing was done by undercover workers like Barbara and Laura, who asked that their last names be withheld because they don’t want landlords to recognize them. The findings were stark.

Illegal discrimination was detected at 13 of 20 apartment buildings in Panorama City and North Hills, a predominantly Latino area of the San Fernando Valley. The tally was 12 of 40 buildings in Koreatown. And in South-Central Los Angeles, 13 of 25 tests revealed signs of racial bias.

Although the surveys did not specify whether landlords were foreign-born, testers reported that many of the apartment managers who engaged in discrimination appeared to be Latino immigrants.

One African American tester quit in frustration, saying the problem was so widespread, fair housing groups would never conquer it.

“I was so upset,” recalled the tester, Aretha Jackson. “I don’t look like scum, you know, I’ve been to school. I ring a doorbell, and they won’t even show me anything.”

That’s what happened to Barbara in North Hills. She was sent there after a black man accused his Mexican-born apartment managers of discrimination.

The test was simple. Barbara walked into the building, a hulk with peeling gray paint, without even glancing at the roster of tenants with names like Aquino, Huerta, Gomez, Romero and Espinoza.

No one answered her knock on the manager’s door. But she felt the door move slightly, as if someone was behind it.

A few minutes after she left, Laura knocked on the same door. This time, a Latina woman who spoke only Spanish opened it.

She enthusiastically told Laura (a native Spanish-speaker) about a one-bedroom apartment with a new stove. Laura spent 20 minutes checking it out and chatting.

“She was really friendly,” Laura said later. The fair housing council is reviewing the case and may forward it to the state for further investigation.

The scope of discrimination by immigrants is hard to measure. Most discrimination cases are settled before they reach the courts.

Rental applicants may not even know they are victims--a law-breaking manager might simply tell them no units are available.

“One of the characteristics of fair housing violations in general is that they’re very hard to detect,” said John Goering, a City University of New York professor who directed fair housing research at HUD for 20 years.

“The blatant acts of discrimination by foreign-born landlords may only be the tip of the iceberg of other, more subtle types of discrimination.”

The complaints to fair housing authorities come from people like Mark Andros, a white man who said he has repeatedly encountered racism while apartment-hunting in Pacoima and Sun Valley. He has been dismissed on sight, he said, by managers from Mexico and Armenia, some of whom barely speak English.

“I’m frustrated, naturally,” Andros said. “But I’m not sure it does any good to show anger. They’re them, and we’re us. It’s like we’re two opposing groups.”

A few miles away in Van Nuys, Nancy Jordan, a 46-year-old black woman with two children, has filed a similar complaint with the fair housing council.

Earlier this year, Jordan was told to vacate her federally subsidized two-bedroom apartment. She joined thousands of low-income tenants being displaced nationwide as building owners leave the federal program to take advantage of higher market rents.

But Jordan said her Salvadoran-born apartment manager singled out black tenants for evictions. She also alleged that she and other black families were forced out without the proper 90-day notice.

Several current and former black tenants said the manager enforces different rules for different races. Latino children, for instance, are allowed to use the pool more.

The manager, Omar Garay, denied any prejudicial treatment and said tenants whose federal subsidies expired were given 90-day notices--and they weren’t all black.

“We don’t favor anyone,” Garay said. The fair housing council is investigating the complaint.

Many complaints are dropped for lack of evidence. In the last five years, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which has been widely criticized by housing advocates for conducting poor investigations, issued only 15 formal accusations of race or national-origin discrimination. The agency can punish violators with fines of up to $50,000.

Fair housing groups say the relatively small number of cases masks a much bigger problem, and solutions are scarce.

In California, advocates say the state should require antidiscrimination training for landlords. The law mandates on-site managers for apartment buildings with more than 15 units, but no formal training is required.

“You’re just supposed to absorb it through osmosis,” said Charles Isham, executive vice president of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, a nonprofit group with more than 25,000 members who own rental housing.

The association offers a 24-day training course for managers, but its classes and trade magazine are available only in English.

To help bridge the gap, the city of Los Angeles is translating manuals for apartment managers into Spanish and Korean.

But Smith, of the national alliance, said more brochures won’t cut it. She advised advocates to delve into immigrant communities and to work with native speakers through churches or business groups, to get the antidiscrimination message out.

And if that doesn’t work?

“When they violate the law,” Smith said, “prosecute them.”