Housing discrimination takes many forms. It can be blatant, as when an ad for an apartment rental states “no children.” Or it can be subtle, as when a lender offers to lend at a slightly higher mortgage interest rate to a Latino homebuyer than the normal rate offered to similarly qualified Caucasians.
A recent report prepared for the cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma and the county of Sonoma finds that these and other forms of housing discrimination may be a bigger problem in Sonoma County than other areas.
The report, titled “Analysis of impediments to fair housing choice,” is posted on the city of Santa Rosa’s website. Its findings are based on surveys conducted by a Denver-based consulting firm that specializes in housing issues and information provided by various stakeholders. About 25 percent of the residents surveyed believed they had been subjected to housing discrimination in renting or purchasing homes in this area. This is significantly higher than the 15 percent who report personal experiences with housing discrimination.
The report also makes some other disturbing findings:
Areas of Sonoma County are racially segregated. Some areas are more than 90 percent white. Other areas are mostly non-white. The predominately white areas have very little affordable housing, and the non-white areas have high concentrations of low-income housing. Almost three-fourths of the survey participants reported that the lack of affordable housing is a critical issue in Sonoma County.
The county lacks adequate transit opportunities and services, which makes it harder for lower-income families and people with disabilities to access housing, employment, schools and stores.
Latino applicants for home mortgage loans in the county are rejected at a significantly higher rate than non-Latino applicants.
This newspaper also recently reported that the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the city of Santa Rosa and a homeowners association for housing discrimination. The lawsuit asserts that city officials violated laws prohibiting housing discrimination against families with children when they allegedly tried to force some families to move from their homes in a development on Colgan Avenue.
The site of the development was zoned for “seniors only” by the city when it was built in 2005, but when many units went unsold, the “seniors only” restriction was relaxed. Families with children moved in and the lawsuit alleges that city officials made no effort to enforce the zoning restrictions.
In 2009, after some senior residents complained about noise and other problems with the younger families, the city moved to enforce the restriction and force the non-senior families to move.
If the Justice Department proves the lawsuit’s allegations, Santa Rosa could find itself under an injunction to stop discrimination against families with children and have to pay damages to the families who were told to move. The city may also have to send some city staff to training sessions about housing discrimination laws.
We don’t know of any other city in California that’s been sued by the federal government for housing discrimination.
The lawsuit and the fair housing analysis need to be taken seriously by city and county officials. The report recommends that the county and its cities acknowledge that housing discrimination is an ongoing problem and undertake a concerted effort to combat housing discrimination in all its forms.
Marin and Napa counties have long supported and funded fair housing enforcement. Their fair housing agencies investigate complaints of housing discrimination, do workshops for landlords, real estate agents, homebuyers and tenants and help inform the public about the requirements of state and federal discrimination laws.
Fortuitously, the Santa Rosa Housing Authority and the county Community Development Commission are considering a proposal to expand the small fair housing agency operated by Petaluma Peoples Services Center to serve the whole county. But will there be enough funding to run an effective countywide program?
Realtors, landlords and developers will benefit from stronger enforcement of fair housing laws and from strengthening the county’s reputation as welcoming to all persons regardless of race, color, family status, sexual orientation, age or religion.
Who wants to live in a county where 25 percent of its residents report being subjected to housing discrimination? Let’s make fair housing education and enforcement a priority.
Steve Harper and David Grabill are members of the Sonoma County Housing Advocacy Group. They are both Santa Rosa residents.