Study Says High Housing Discrimination In Vt. Test Cases

Montpelier — A recent study reports that housing discrimination remains high in Vermont, though the numbers are consistent with the national average. A study released by Housing Discrimination Law Project found discrimination in 44 percent of the 260 test cases conducted in 2012 and 2013. The study found discrimination of 46 percent on national origin, 36 percent on race/color, 45 percent on minor children and 22 percent based on disability.

The findings reflect results consistent with the numbers found in a similar Housing Discrimination Law Project study in 2012 and in national figures on discrimination, according to Rachel Batterson, the director of the project. A 2003 study found substantially lower rates of discrimination in the state.

Over nearly two years, the Housing Discrimination Law Project performed test cases: They conducted linguistic tests over the phone and made site visits with a test and a control.

The study was conducted largely in Chittenden County. The Housing Discrimination Law Project is a project of Vermont Legal Aid, an organization that gives Vermont tenants free legal representation.

“Over the decades it [discrimination] has changed from more overt to more subtle,” Batterson said. Nevertheless, Batterson said, she hopes to use the data to educate Vermonters about equity laws and “counteract the perception that Vermont’s an all-white state and has no discrimination.”

Last year, Vermont Legal Aid received about 100 complaints of discrimination. The majority of those cases, Batterson said, come from families with children or people with disabilities.

For Angela Zaikowski, director of the Apartment Owners Association, the data is not as straightforward as it may appear.

“Discrimination is one of the most nuanced laws that landlords might encounter,” she said. “Most of the testers didn’t have any idea that they were being discriminated against at all. It was only with the behind-the-scenes people that were able to find those results. Clearly there were instances in which discrimination had occurred but you also have a huge chunk that they’re calling it inconclusive.”

The Apartment Owners Association, based in Shelburne, helps landlords understand their legal rights and responsibilities. The organization has about 1,000 members statewide.

At times, the discrimination reported in the report was indisputable — informing certain renters that the space was unavailable and later telling other callers that it was still free, or less obviously, discussing the positive characteristics of the apartment with some renters and the negatives aspects with others. Often, the results were even more subtle: spending less time in conversation with certain renters or returning calls more promptly.

“The problem comes in when people assume that the white person will be able to pay rent, or make other assumptions based on race, disability or other reasons,” Batterson said. “I myself am a renter and I was never asked for a credit check or what my income is or anything. That was based on a lot of assumptions about me as a white woman.”

For Batterson, what matters most is the opportunity to progress. And in that sense, she said. Vermont has an advantage over most of the rest of the country.

“We still have a real opportunity because we’re relatively undeveloped. You can see a pattern developing that people of color are being isolated in poor neighborhoods but everything’s not so entrenched that we can’t change, both in the broader picture of land use and individual behaviors.”

“It definitely presents an avenue to provide training to all landlords,” Zaikowski acknowledged. “If you say you’re going to call someone back, call them back, and call everyone back, and make sure you’re being fair all the time with everybody. That’s really what they should be striving for.”

But, Zaikowski added, “Most of the landlords I work with couldn’t care less about skin color or where the tenant’s from. They care that they’re going to pay the rent and be a good neighbor and take care of the property.”