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Unwelcome Mat

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Rental housing is famously scarce in northwestern Vermont. And finding a place to call home can be especially difficult if you're an immigrant. That's the conclusion of a report released last week by the Fair Housing Project in Burlington. "Housing discrimination is happening in Vermont, and it's illegal," says Willa Darley Chapin, testing coordinator for the study, which was administered by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity with funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Between October 2003 and September 2004, 27 pairs of testers posed as prospective tenants and inquired about rental properties, mainly in the Burlington area, but also elsewhere in Chittenden, Washington and Lamoille counties. Each pair included one person who was an immigrant and a non-native English speaker, and one who was born in the U.S. The testers were matched by income, gender and age. "Testers in each pair would call the same landlord, ideally on the same day," explains Darley Chapin.

When the experiences of immigrant testers were compared with those of non-immigrants, evidence of discrimination turned up about 50 percent of the time. "In a lot of cases," says Darley Chapin, "the immigrant testers would leave a bunch of messages and never get a call back, where the control might leave one message and get a call back right away." In other instances, landlords told immigrants that they had to wait longer for apartments to become available than they told non-immigrants, or required an application fee from immigrants but not from prospective renters born in the U.S.

These practices are illegal under federal and state fair-housing laws, which prohibit discrimination against prospective tenants on the basis of national origin and 10 other characteristics, according to Darley Chapin.

Ted Wimpey, the director of statewide housing services for CVOEO, says the study was launched in response to "the fairly dramatic increase in immigrants to Vermont in recent years." These newcomers include Africans, Bosnians and Tibetans. Many of them have arrived through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.

Immigrants are especially vulnerable to housing discrimination, Wimpey says, because they may not be familiar with their rights under fair-housing law, and they often do not know how or where to file a complaint. An even bigger problem is that immigrant families may have no idea that they're being discriminated against in the first place. "It's only when analysis is done comparing the experience of immigrant testers with control testers that discrimination can be demonstrated," Wimpey says.

Stuart Bennett, director of the Shelburne-based Vermont Apartment Owners Association, is skeptical of the study's methodology as well as its conclusions. "Nobody is going to deny that discrimination happens," he says. "We know it does. But 27 pairs of phone calls over the course of a year doesn't strike me as sound evidence to turn around and make a public statement about the amount of housing discrimination happening in Vermont. The conclusion is just wrong." Bennett says his organization educates landlords about fair-housing law through seminars and written materials, but does not plan any direct response to the CVOEO study at this time.

Wimpey says the study's results will help CVOEO shape future fair-housing education, outreach and investigative efforts -- assuming those programs have a future. The 2006 federal budget proposed by the Bush administration would cut the HUD program that funds fair-housing studies by 24 percent, and the one that supports housing complaint investigations by 18 percent.

While the budget wrangling goes on in Washington, though, CVOEO staffers say they remain focused on their work. "Housing opportunities affect so many other aspects of people's lives, including the schools their children attend, the kinds of jobs they are close to, and their recreational and social opportunities," Darley Chapin says. "And at a time when Vermont is changing, we have an opportunity to do things right."

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