Metro, Politics

Newton Mayor Joins Lawyers in Event Surveying Massachusetts’s History of Unfair Housing

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said that there is a long way to go before communities across the country—including Newton—reach fair and equitable housing in a Zoom presentation on Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m always kind of stunned when I read carefully what fair housing means,” Fuller said. “The reason [fair housing] takes my breath away is—whether it’s Newton or Framingham, Lexington or Wayland—we know we have such a long way to go to actually have fair housing.”

Fuller and other city employees joined attorneys from Suffolk University Law School at a workshop Tuesday hosted by the WestMetro HOME Consortium to outline the history of unfair housing in the U.S. and how communities can establish fair practices.

The consortium is a group of cities and towns in the Metro Boston area that prioritizes fair housing. 

The thirteen cities and towns that belong to the Consortium commit to taking meaningful and measurable actions to break down barriers to fair housing choice and affirmatively further fair housing for all protected classes,” according to Newton’s website.

Jamie Langowski, a practitioner in residence and assistant director of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program (HDTP) at Suffolk Law, said that unfair housing is part of the fabric of the country’s history.

The first example of unfair housing was in 1619 with the importation of the first African slave, and it persists today, according to Langowski’s presentation. All levels of government and private advocacy groups—like HDTP—continue to advocate for fairer housing practices.

One of the policies that has contributed to the current state of housing is redlining, a practice that creates race-based neighborhoods in places such as Newton, according to Kelly Vieira, a clinical fellow at Suffolk Law’s HDTP. 

“[Redlining] was often racially motivated in that those neighborhoods that were marked ‘red,’ as particularly risky, were often majority minority neighborhoods—neighborhoods that were primarily Black, for example,” Vieira said.

Vieira presented two maps of Metro Boston—one from the 1930s and one from 2010—side by side, showing a correlation between race and which areas are “green”—or safe to give loans to—by the federal government and which areas are “red”—where loans for homes are rare. 

The green areas were mostly in the suburbs outside of Boston and were predominantly populated by white residents, while the red areas were more toward the southern parts of the city, including neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Dorchester, where a greater proportion of  people of color live.

Vieira said that these racially segregated areas exist today, and the effects of this redlining on the wealth of minority groups also persist.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston surveyed the net worths of families in Metro Boston and recorded a great discrepancy across races. For white families, the average net worth was $247,500, and the average net worth for Black families was $8.

These inequalities in the housing process exist despite federal, state, and local laws.

One major factor in combating unfair housing is the federal government’s establishment of protected classes of people. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 establishes these protected classes as race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and national origin. Langowski said that sellers of homes cannot discriminate against people based on certain characteristics.

Massachusetts anti-Discrimination law Chapter 151B adds ages 40 or older, military status, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, receipt of public assistance, genetic information, and ancestry as protected classes in Massachusetts.

Other barriers to applying for housing include application fees, holding deposits, eviction records, criminal history, and minimum income requirements, according to Langowski.

While there are many barriers in the search for fair housing—especially for historically discriminated against groups—Langowski outlined some tips that can help prospective renters and owners navigate this flawed system of housing.

Langowski recommended that prospective tenants save advertisements, emails, and texts from real estate agents and keep track of prices so they can reevaluate their options later.

Despite Langowski’s tips, Vieira said that it is difficult for many people in Greater Boston to escape discrimination in the housing process.

In a study that Suffolk University conducted from 2018 to 2019, 71 percent of Black people experienced some form of discrimination in the housing process. Agents did not respond to the inquiries of many of the study’s Black participants and made it harder for them to tour units, according to the study. The agents also inaccurately represented the number of units available to the Black participants.

Vieira said that this purposeful ignoring of prospective tenants—or ghosting—was the most prevalent form of discrimination in the study. Ghosting, in this case, is when a housing broker does not call back potential tenants who mention they have housing vouchers, which assists low-income families, disabled people, and the elderly

Despite the passage of new laws addressing housing discrimination, the U.S. still has a lot of work to do to make renting and buying fair for all, according to Langowski. 

“[The United States] has never actually addressed what we did [with unfair housing practices]—we only said, ‘We’re gonna stop doing it from this point forward,’ and I don’t know if that’s enough to fix this,” she said.

May 1, 2022