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Fair Housing In San Diego — Addressing Discrimination

April 9, 2013 12:43 p.m.


Mary Scott Knoll, Executive Director, Fair Housing Council of San Diego

Related Story: Fair Housing In San Diego - Addressing Discrimination


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Midday Edition, with the real estate market slowly but steadily improving, more San Diegans are bound to be making a move this year. And San Diego's fair housing council is working to give every homeowner and home buyer some remedial education in how to spot housing discrimination. April is national fair housing month, and although federal and state laws have been in effect for almost half a century, experts in the field say there are still widespread misconceptions about what fair housing does and does not mean. I'd like to welcome my guest, Mary Scott Knoll, director of the for a housing of San Diego.

KNOLL: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: What were problems that people encountered in buying homes that the fair housing act tried to correct?

KNOLL: Well, historically, housing segregation is the primary problem that has resulted from unlawful discrimination. And from that you get denial of mortgage lending, denial of applications for home buyers who were seeking to buy. Denial of rentals based on race, color, and other prohibited bases, and the result being denial of access to quality education, quality health services, and so forth. So the situation which the law sought to abate and get rid of it, in fact, had to do with equal access, housing civil rights that belonged to individuals that were being denied unlawfully.

CAVANAUGH: And which people fall into classes of people that are covered under the fair housing act?

KNOLL: I am very pleased to say everyone.

KNOLL: Your neighbor, your friends. And that means that housing discrimination has slowly -- and fair housing is a legal term which has over time evolved to give various classes of people what's called protections against unlawful housing discrimination. They are protected classes. And they start with race, which was the earliest carved out group and extend over to national origin, religion, gender, familial status, persons with disabilities, and that names the seven protected classes under federal law. If I got each one, and I'll probably repeat them ad nauseam today. Under state law you have the same protected classes and groups, and you add to that marital status, source of income, sexual orientation, age, ancestry so that you can see if you examine the laws closely, you know that everyone has the housing civil right. And here's the operative word, to live where they choose to live and are qualified to live.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the goal of the fair housing council as I understand it is to promote equal housing opportunities as you say for all persons. How well would you say San Diego is doing toward achieving that goal?

KNOLL: I would say that San Diego's improvement is reflected by what the national norm is. I always have learned and it's been proven to me over time that San Diego is really no different from the rest of the nation with this issue. On a national level, the U.S. housing and urban development department has conducted studies. As its first study showed, there was a rate of 50% discrimination against African Americans and persons of Hispanic national origin. Over time that's been reduced. So we have a great deal of progress. The latest study, and HUD does these studies every ten years. They did one in 2000, and they've done another for 2010, but the results have not been released. So the latest study that we have shows that the discrimination against those groups that I just mentioned has reduced from 19-25%. So the sum total of my thinking is that we are making progress. The other way that I know progress is being made is that the public has become more aware. Although we're not there yet. There still remains a great deal of confusion for instance between landlord tenant law, which say complete set of laws, and housing discrimination law. But that being said, people are much more aware. They call with already an idea of what their rights are. Because we've operated a telephone hot line for many, many years and have seen the level of understanding increase from the general public.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get into that. I understand that an awful lot of the calls that your agency receives actually deals with landlord and tenant laws. So where is the area of that confusion? Because fair housing laws do also encompass the rights of renters, right?

KNOLL: They do. Now, one thing I want to point out right away is that we -- the Fair Housing Council right now, especially since you mentioned landlord/tenant, one of the preeminent agencies in San Diego is the legal aid aside in San Diego, in which our council right now is in a collaborative partnership. The legal aid society is contracted with the fair housing council. And they have been in the business of defending tenants for many, many year, and our combination of services is going to be a range of advocacy, all the way over to enforcement, which would be the filing of appropriate cases. Let me get to your question, however. Tenant/landlord laws are very contractual in nature. They have to do with what the owner promise when is he puts his product out on the market. He promises a habitable unit, safe unit, and he promises to make repairs, keep the property up pursuant to requests for payers. The renter promises to keep the property up, take care of it, pay rent on time, and respect their neighbors. Different from that would be a person's housing civil right, to choose fair housing place of residence and to be able to live there without any interference based on the protected class status that they may have. So what it means is if a person goes into four marketplaces that are covered under federal and state law, that would be housing rental, housing sales, the mortgage lending that has to go for the purchase of the home and the related property insurance. In those four marketplaces, there should be no barriers put up to prevent the person from having access to all of those markets with regard to their protected class.

CAVANAUGH: So it sounds the way the landlord tenant laws differ from the fair housing laws as they are interpreted for renters is the difference between actually living in a place as opposed to trying to secure a place to live.

KNOLL: Exactly. The fair housing laws attach to your entry into the marketplace, those four markets, trying to access a product, trying to secure a rental or purchase the home of your choice. Once you are there as a tenant in the rental marketplace, then the attachment of the contract that I spoke about comes into play. As well as fair housing law, for instance. Most people don't understand that housing discrimination can also happen for in-place tenancies. Most particularly when it concerns families with children or persons with disabilities who already live in the units.

CAVANAUGH: Let me talk about that. There have been really big improvements when it comes to discrimination based on race. Now I understand that the biggest class of people who are affected by fair housing laws are people with disabilities. Why is that?

KNOLL: Well, I certainly believe that there's a strong correlation between the kinds of services that are provided to educate the population. What happens is the more education, and the more confidence the person who has the civil right is achieved, then the better off they are in asserting those rights. When people call and say I have a fair housing issue, and they don't understand that this is not fair housing, that falls by the wayside. By when a person with a disability knows that an owner is obligated not to withhold their request for a reasonable accommodation, they're better able to articulate that, better able to bring a meritorious complaint about it, because it's based on reality in law.

CAVANAUGH: Let's say a landlord tells a prospective renter who is in a wheelchair that we don't want you to be in this unit because we've just put in hardwood floors and your wheelchair will ruin those floors. Is that a reasonable argument?

KNOLL: That is a direct violation of the fair housing laws. It would be simple denial based upon that person's disability as opposed to the lawful inquiries that can be made, which would be do you earn the appropriate amount of money? Can you pay for the unit? Do you have any recent evictions that would cause me to have some concern? Do you meet our credit criteria, which is equally applied to all applicants? Those would be legitimate areas of concern for an owner. But not the use of a chair, which might potentially hurt a floor. And here's the reason why. Economically, owners are seen to have put their rents and their other costs in ways that are comparable to the market, that cover for any losses that might occur. That's also the reason for having a security deposit. So if in fact the chair happened to scar a particular portion of the floor, moneys can be withheld out of that deposit to make a repair. So everything is fair in this, as I use the word in its literal meaning. The owner does not have to take a loss when renting it a person with a disability, because the owner always has a security deposit that can be used legitimately to make repairs.

CAVANAUGH: And families with children run into fair housing discrimination as well. Is it possible that people who own properties do this, and they're not even aware that they are actually discriminating?

KNOLL: Absolutely. I would answer that one of the things that we know to be true is that there are two forms of discrimination. One is an intentional form, I refuse to rent to X. The other is an unintentional, uninformed kind. They both are actionable, and a person can file a complaint. But when an owner for instance takes the position that they want to take care of kids on the second floor, and they're going to withhold the space from families with children, that would be a violation of the act. Because that is it the concern of the parent and not the owner. And logically speaking, if you were to withhold all second-floor units that there would be in the San Diego region away from families with children, we would increase the level of homelessness where there are already too many families with children as we speak. So that in my mind would be one of those unknowing ways in which discrimination occurs. The other might be that there's a growing phenomenon, for instance, let's take autism which is a mental health issue. And it's also a disability. Well, increasingly, we were getting calls from families who were being evicted because the owner did not understand the nature of the disability, who was not giving that family the opportunity to address any concerns before eviction, to make changes, to change medications, to have intervention services. So disabilities and families with children, there's a crossover there. But families with children are also the victims of housing discrimination knowingly or unknowingly.

CAVANAUGH: Let me also ask you, and this is a big concern in San Diego, if someone living here illegally without documentation, and they go to rent a place to live, is the owner able or not able to ask for any kind of documentation?

KNOLL: According to the U.S. department of housing developments, fair housing and equal opportunity office, inquiry about status, citizenship status is inappropriate and should not occur. The same factors an owner can legitimately look to pertain here. Do you have the adequate income? Do you have recent evictions? Are there reasons why I should not rent to you as a business matter? But the practical concern would be if you believe the 11 million figure that's tossed around about the number of undocumented citizens in the U.S., then if you also say and we won't rent to you, you really are going to increase a huge problem. So the other way to answer that is to say inquiry into citizenship is not one that is normally or is legal for processing the application of an undocumented housing applicant.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mary, we started this off by saying that this is fair housing month. What is your agency doing to get out the word to people about all the things that we've been talking about? And if people have questions, where can they go and get answers?

KNOLL: The legal aid society of San Diego and the fair housing council have many different kinds of ways to do outreach and education. Seminars, workshops, web pages that have an array of information about fair housing laws. Presentations. We put on a conference, annual conference every year for housing consumers, for agencies that provide services, and we do creative things. One year we put on a stage play of A Raisin in the Sun down in the lyceum theatre. We've done variety shows to help people celebrate each other's cultures. We have a hotline. But if someone wants to find out more, they should visit the Fair Housing Council's web page at Or there is a housing hotline number that is under the funding for the City of San Diego at 1-800-462-0503.

CAVANAUGH: Mary Scott Knoll, thank you so much.

KNOLL: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.