The message at a February 28 meeting to discuss housing and communities of color was that Minnesotans of color face both new and old challenges to receiving equal rental and homeownership opportunities — challenges that are being addressed by a variety of individuals and organizations, but that are, nevertheless, formidable.
“I think that the unfortunate truth is that intentional discrimination in housing remains an enormous problem in the Twin Cities metropolitan region and, of course, beyond,” said Colleen Walbran of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) in St. Paul. Walbran was speaking to the more than 150 community members and professionals who crowded into a conference room at the Minneapolis Urban League for the meeting.
“At SMRLS and at Minneapolis Legal Aid, we’re receiving complaints about intentional discrimination in terms of refusal to rent based on race,
national origin, gender and so forth. We see landlords issuing different
terms of housing, different lease terms, rent and so forth. Some also practice selective eviction practices and retaliation,” Walbran continued. She went on to cite several local and national studies that found that African Americans and Latinos experienced housing
discrimination more than 50 percent of the time.
Forty-three percent of the 10,000 housing discrimination complaints that
HUD and local fair housing agencies receive annually involve racial
“In addition to those intentional race discrimination practices that
persist as major problems and obstacles for people attaining safe and
stable housing, we also receive a lot of complaints about policies that
have the effect of denying people housing choice, even if they don’t
immediately appear to be racist or discriminatory on another protected
class basis,” said Walbran.
“One that has remained a problem is landlords using restrictive
occupancy policies. We’re referring to those policies where they limit
the number of people per bedroom, oftentimes tighter than the local
housing code — for example, one person per bedroom.
“Well, since certain protected class groups tend to have larger
families, the effect of this is discriminatory. Asian Americans, new
immigrants, other populations of color are affected by these types of
“A Wilder study from a few years back, in fact, showed that family size
was the reason 15 percent of adults who did not have permanent housing
cited as a barrier to them attaining housing. So, occupancy policies
remain a problem.”
Walbran added that minimum income requirements and policies against
accepting rental subsidies are other barriers that can have a
discriminatory effect on renters of color.
“One other topic I wanted to touch on, that has particular relevance for
the homeless community, would be predatory practices by landlords,” said
Walbran. “We’ve received a number of reports about landlords who
particularly seek out tenants who are homeless, or who may be living in
a homeless shelter, for the purpose of exploiting these tenants,
particularly in the sense of sexual harassment — preying upon people who
are in a very desperate situation, who need housing more than anything,
and then subjecting them to unwelcome sexual advances, offering of sex
for rent, or other quid pro quo sexual harassment.”
Walbran said that what is needed to combat these disturbing trends is
more everyday people taking a strong stand against housing discrimination.
She said, “HUD did a study and found through their survey that 14
percent of the people that they talked to had experienced housing
discrimination. But of the full population of people that experienced
housing discrimination, only 17 percent did something about it. And the
vast majority of those who did something complained only to the person
who had discriminated against them. A very small fraction reported it to
a fair housing enforcement agency or sought legal help.
“So I would urge people to report housing discrimination, to encourage
others to report housing discrimination, and to aggressively seek the
enforcement of fair housing laws,” said Walbran.
Ebony Ruhland, research coordinator at the Council on Crime and Justice
in Minneapolis, said that another barrier to fair housing practices has
recently emerged in communities of color — the pervasive use of
background checks on rental applications.
“We know that African American males are disproportionately targeted by
the police,” she said. “They may not even be convicted of a crime, but
there will still be a mark against them in their arrest record. Landlords are now doing criminal background checks in almost every case. With the use of technology and the Internet, almost anyone can access that information.
“Our question is, even if someone has been incarcerated and with the
number of people coming out of prison, how are they supposed to
rehabilitate themselves if the housing they’re given is too high, even
if they have jobs?”
In order to correct this trend, Ruhland said that the Council on Crime
and Justice is conducting expungement workshop to help people have their arrest records sealed. She said, “At the next legislative session, we’re
proposing that (1) arrest records should be sealed during background
checks, and (2) low-level offenses and petty misdemeanors should be
sealed as well.
“We’re hopeful. We’re in the middle stages. We want to get the community
behind us, and get more people aware of the situation. That’s why we
come to events like this.”
Paul Williams of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) also
told those assembled at the meeting that their support is needed in
order to correct the state’s incredible homeownership disparity among
Whites and people of color.
“LISC is a co-convener of an initiative called Changing the Face of
Housing In Minnesota, which is an effort to bring more people of color
into the housing industry as a whole, as one small step toward trying to
rectify some of the varied discrepancies that you’ve heard about today,”
“It’s our belief that if in fact you put more people of color into that
system, and make it reflective of the communities that it is intended to
serve, that we will get different kinds of outcomes,” he continued.
Williams gave a detailed statistical portrait of the homeownership
disparities in Minnesota, using 2000 numbers. In that year, Whites had a
homeownership rate of 77 percent, while African Americans had a
homeownership rate of 32 percent, Native Americans had a homeownership rate of 49 percent, Asian/Pacific Islanders had a homeownership rate of 52 percent, and Hispanics/Latinos had a homeownership rate of 43 percent. Altogether, communities of color in the Twin Cities had a homeownership rate of 42 percent.
“In the past year, Minnesota has become one of the leaders, if not the
leader in homeownership in the country,” said Williams. “Yet,
communities of color have among the lowest homeownership rates in the
country here. So again, following along the same lines of disparities
that you’ve heard about today, that same disparity exists in terms of
Williams said that this exists in sharp contrast to other communities of
color nationwide, many of which enjoy homeownership rates above 50 percent.
“There’s something about our systems, our communities, the way we seem
to do things here in Minnesota, despite the progressive label that we
get in our policies and our politics and in our communities. Something’s
going on here,” he said.
LISC and other groups have put together a project called the Emerging
Markets Homeownership Initiative, which Williams identified as key to
reversing the widening gap.
“The State has essentially made it a goal to put together a business
plan around closing that gap in homeownership in communities of color.
We’re part of that, the Federal Reserve, the cities, a lot of different
folks from communities of color,” he said.
Williams added that “quantifiable” barriers such as income and
demographics (age, marital status, and immigration status) only account
for around 30 percent of the barriers to homeownership in communities of
“So that other 70 percent is attributed to some of those more qualitative or unquantifiable barriers,” he said, defining these “qualitative” items as credit quality, lack of wealth and access to down-payment, cultural practices and preferences, discrimination and housing supply.
The Emerging Markets Homeownership Initiative is working to increase
participation of communities of color at all levels of the housing
industry in order to transcend these barriers, Williams said. Their five
core strategies are recruitment and retention, cultural audits and
organizational assessments, capacity building for culturally specific
housing organizations, building a pipeline of people of color into the
field, and grassroots public policy leadership development.
By 2012, the group hopes to increase the emerging markets homeownership rate from 46 percent to 58 percent, and decrease the homeownership gap from 32 to 23 percent in the process.
“We’ve got this incredible gap, and what appears to be a growing gap in
Minnesota, and in the Twin Cities, yet we also know that this is the
emerging market,” said Williams. “So things are happening here. There is
opportunity here and there is a market here.”
To find out more about the Council on Crime and Justice’s efforts to get
arrest records sealed, or to help out, call 612-348-7874.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of housing discrimination,
call the Housing Discrimination Law Project (612-334-5970) or the
Housing Equality Law Project (651-222-4731).
For more information on the Emerging Markets Homeownership Initiative,
visit http://www.mhfa.state.mn.us/homes/EMHI.htm or call 651-296-7608.