Racial discrimination shown in Vermont housing market

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(Host) Fair housing advocates say the state has not taken any action in response to a study that showed a high incidence of racial bias by Vermont realtors.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Vermont realtors and housing advocates expressed surprise and dismay over the findings when they were released last April. The study found that African American couples were discriminated against 48% of the time they dealt with real estate agents. Testers visited 45 realtors in nine Vermont cities. The incidence of discrimination in Vermont was nearly triple the national average.

The survey was conducted by the Burlington-based Fair Housing Project. It was part of a nationwide study funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office. The Vermont Association of Realtors says after the study was released, it alerted its member to the importance of observing fair housing laws. Robert Golden is the executive director.

(Golden) “We said, ‘Hey, look, you need to pay attention to these laws. They’re important. If you don’t understand them, you need to get up to speed on them.'”

(Zind) Golden says the association routinely offers fair housing seminars for members.

Robert Meehan is the Director of the Fair Housing Association. Meehan says he’s satisfied with the response by realtors. But Meehan says he is not satisfied with the state’s response to the fair housing report. Meehan says because the study turned up evidence of unlawful discrimination, Vermont’s Human Rights Commission should launch an investigation.

(Meehan) “We’ve uncovered evidence and we’ve reported that to the enforcement agencies such as, in the state, the Human Rights Commission. And we’re hoping that there will be follow up and investigation.”

(Zind) Robert Appel is the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Speaking recently on VPR’s “Switchboard” program, Appel said the commission hasn’t received complaints from anyone who feels they have been discriminated against by a realtor. And despite the findings of the study, Appel says they can’t take action without a complaint:

(Appel) “We respond to complaints. We have not received complaints around the sales market at this point in time. We would certainly welcome those sorts of complaints.”

(Zind) Appel says in some cases complaints can be filed by a third party. That means an organization like the Fair Housing Project could file it’s own complaint. Robert Meehan says, technically, that’s possible but the organization would have to prove it has been harmed by the discrimination it uncovered and that would be difficult.

As for an individual filing a housing discrimination complaint, Burlington Assistant City Attorney Nikki Fuller says it’s a daunting process. Fuller says as a person of color, she often fields calls from people who want to know what to do about incidents of discrimination.

She says individuals are reluctant to file complaints with the Human Rights Commission because the process is time consuming, difficult and intimidating. And she says there is skepticism about whether or not it’s worth filing a complaint.

(Fuller) “It’s no surprise to me that more people choose not to file a complaint. And as you know this is a small community, so if you’re one of those people who file a complaint where nothing’s happened, you’re going to tell someone else. And it just spreads and so people say, ‘I’m not going to bother. My friend Joe tried it and they didn’t really do anything.'”

(Zind) Fuller says the state needs a fair housing ombudsman to assist victims of discrimination. She says the fact that there’s been no action on the Fair Housing Project study shows that Vermont’s system of dealing with unlawful discrimination is not working.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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