2005-12-01 Grand Haven Tribune "Housing market still shows signs of discrimination"

Housing market still shows signs of discrimination
Grand Haven Tribune

A social-scientific study sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and administered by Hope College students lends new light to William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" query: '"What's in a name?"

According to research data presented Wednesday at Grand Haven City Hall, people of color still face discrimination in lakeshore housing choices.

Hope College political science professor Dr. Joel J. Toppen, a Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance board member, shared results of a March 2005 study which explored discrimination in Grand Haven and Holland rental housing markets.

Hope College seniors Jacob Kain and Randall Owen phoned 78 lakeshore landlords and apartment community managers to inquire about rental opportunities advertised on Grand Haven Tribune and Holland Sentinel Internet Web sites.

Kain and Owen, for research purposes, used a series of fictitious names - three that may be perceived as "white" (Matt
VandeKamp, Ryan DeHaan, Tim McCormick), three that likely would be considered Hispanic (Miguel Garcia,
Javier Martinez, Carlos Gomez) and another trio that included suggested African- American names (Kareem
Jackson, Darnell Washington and Jermaine Jones).

The data results are staggering, according to Toppen, suggesting discrimination may be latent and subconscious, but more prevalent than anyone realizes.

Judging by the "name" results of the study, the fictitious Matt, Ryan and Tim received "much more favorable and preferential treatment" than their pseudo potential renters with perceived Hispanic or African-American surnarnes, according to Toppen.

Under a chart labeled "differential treatment in lakeshore rental: housing" data shows return phone calls to tenants perceived as white versus not at a 69 to 50 percent ratio; apartment availability confirmed at a 79 to 58 percent difference; rental rate mentioned by landlord at an 87 to 33 percent spread; unsolicited unit description dropping from 93 to 58 percent for perceived non-whites and an offer to meet/show the apartment differing by 35 percentage points - 60 to 25.

"There's a debate whether discrimination is a thing of the past," Toppen said. "I'm not surprised at the results. We're not measuring a difference of race. We're measuring a perceived difference of race. Discrimination is very much something that exists in our minds. It's part of our perception and therefore part of our identity.

"We have no way of knowing if any individual (rental property owner) acted in an illegal way. This is not 'gotcha' research design. It's fully possible there was no conscious decision to treat anyone differently. What may be the case is it's something that's subconscious."

Tanya Willingham of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids explained federal, state and local fair housing
laws at Wednesday's LEDA forum but she too, agreed the problem is in perception, not procedure.

Willingham announced that Grand Rapids, Grand Haven and Holland are lumped into a statistical "metro area" in
the eyes of the federal government.

She said our local "metro" area ranks as the "20th most segregated area in the country" according to federal data. The Detroit area, according to Willingham, holds the number two slot in segregation statistics.

She suggests inequity in national rankings because of realtors and rental agents who attempt to "steer" people to neighborhoods based on color and race in her Grand Rapids locale.

She noted Fuller Street, north and south of an arbitrary dividing line, as a prime example.

Willingham on Wednesday received her 136th complaint of 2005 regarding fair housing practices. She said about 90
percent of complaints concern race and that more than 80 percent of actual discrimination problems remain unreported.

"Think about the voices that aren't being heard," Willingham said' "If you don't learn the laws, you don't know what your rights are. Education, we believe, is the most important thing. People want to live in diverse communities. It's better for us and better for our children."

Grand Haven Mayor Roger Bergman, present in Wednesday's audience, applauded the open interaction forum.

"I think they did a great job", Bergman said. "I was pleased that members of our human relations committee attended. This is an ongoing concern we have as a community."

LEDA executive director and interim Lakeshore Fair Housing Center Director GaiI Harrison said change will come when area residents respond to a call for action - from internal and external sources.

"If we are truly looking at people of color being dissuaded from moving into our community we're going to become more segregated," Harrison said. "We'Il have people that won't be able to function in the global world as it exists. We are the island of Caucasian population."

Wednesday's LEDA forum was the first in a series of quarterly informational sessions. Future forum dates and times are not yet scheduled, but Harrison said she hopes the message is clear.

"How are we going to grapple with these issues if we don't start talking about them?"