Question: I called the rental office of a local apartment complex in response to an ad. The manager told me there were several one-bedroom units still available and we set up an appointment to view the units. When I arrived for the meeting, the manager saw that I am an African American and told me there was only one unit left. I went with him to see this unit, but as we walked to it, I noticed several units near a nice fountain and patio area that appeared to be vacant. When I asked about those units, I was told they had just been rented. The unit I was shown was in a separate building located in the back of the property near the carports. When I was inspecting the unit, I noticed that several of the immediate neighbors were black or other minorities. I didn't see any minority tenants in the other parts of the complex. I felt like I had been misled and I left. Now I am wondering whether I have been a victim of discrimination.
Answer: Federal and state fair housing laws specifically prohibit housing providers from limiting tenants of a certain race to separate areas of the property.
This practice of channeling individuals to certain areas and denying rental opportunities in other areas is known as "steering." Steering may occur in several forms. For example, a large housing provider may rent part of a complex only to certain minorities or only to families with young children, while saving other sections for tenants perceived by the landlord as being more preferable.
Your experience definitely raises a suspicion of steering. For more information, contact your local fair housing agency or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. These agencies can follow up to determine whether there is evidence of discrimination by sending "testers" of different races to apply for an apartment to see whether they are treated differently based on their race.
The agency may also decide to survey current tenants to determine whether there is a pattern of steering. If your experience is supported by further evidence, you may have remedies available to you.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.