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17 Percent of Minorities Experience Discrimination in Westchester Housing Study

Marlene Zarfes of Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc., shares the findings of recent fair housing real-estate study at Pelham Democratic Club on Wednesday night.

Seventeen percent of blacks and Hispanics who sought housing in Westchester during a controlled study experienced discrimination, a recent report revealed.

Between February 2009 and August 2010, Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc., a non-profit that promotes equal and affordable housing, dispensed 111 pairs of testers to Westchester, Rockland and Putnam. The aim was to see if minorities are treated fairly in the rental housing market. This Supreme Court-approved method of testing requires a control group, which in this case was white rental-seekers, and a protected group, which were represented by blacks and Hispanics.

WRO Director, Marlene Zarfes, shared these findings, at a Pelham Democratic Club forum on Wednesday night.

“We concentrated primarily on rentals, because it’s much tougher to test sales,” Zarfes offered. “We concentrated on race, but that’s not the only thing we do. We test any of the protected classes—disability, age, gender, military status.”

Within Westchester, the groups were sent out to real estate offices, apartment complexes or management companies in Sound Shore, Peekskill and Mount Kisco, and tried to secure rental residences.

While a staggering 17 percent experienced discrimination—as extreme as being told that there were no vacancies in buildings that had apartments available--Zarfes said that these numbers point to improvement.

“Seventeen percent sounds like almost one out of five,” Zarfes noted. “That’s not a great thing. However, five years ago, we conducted a similar—not exactly the same test—and found that 46 percent were treated unequally.”

Zarfes emphasized, however, that the previous study was much smaller and was only conducted in Westchester among real estate agents.

WRO’s director offered a few examples of how minorities were discriminated against during the course of the study. Some blacks and Hispanics were asked to fill out a credit check form, for example, whereas white testers weren’t.

In one blatant case of discrimination, a super would schedule appointments with potential tenants, but if a minority showed up, he wouldn’t show them the available apartments.

“If it was a white tester, he was very friendly, very welcoming,” Zarfes said. “If it was a black tester, he wouldn’t get out of his car.”

To confirm that such cases were not, in fact, just random flukes, WRO would test two more times. In this situation, the organization ultimately filed a complaint with the Westchester County Human Rights Commission and a hearing is scheduled to take place before an administrative judge in two weeks.

These findings have surfaced on the heels of a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development against Westchester County. Because the county accepted federal funds, it was required to affirmatively further fair housing, but it failed to certify that it was doing so. The county agreed to a settlement agreement in which it has seven years to build—and market—750 affordable housing units.

“The goal,” Zarfes explained, “is to increase minority populations in some of the primarily white areas.”

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