By Kate Scott, Director of Fair Housing
In late 2015, I moved across the country to begin work as the Equal Rights Center’s (ERC) new Director of Fair Housing. Prior to this move, I had resigned from work with my longtime employer, a fair housing center in New Orleans, but was deeply committed to remaining in New Orleans. Several people inquired if I was open to moving somewhere else. “Only for the right opportunity,” I would respond, smugly believing that no such thing existed. But when ERC’s Executive Director reached out for an initial conversation, my curiosity piqued.
Over a decade ago, I began working as a civil rights tester with the same fair housing group in New Orleans where I was subsequently employed. As a Sociology major, I found testing- essentially, mystery shopping for housing- academically interesting. But my experiences as a tester ensured that my interest in testing as a civil rights tool would also be both emotionally resonant and longstanding.
For example, before Katrina, a landlord in a predominantly white neighborhood of New Orleans confided in me by phone, “This neighborhood is 99% white and I intend to keep it that way so I screen my phone calls. But you sound like a nice girl, so here’s the address in case you want to drive by and take a look at the house from the outside.” After Katrina, a housing provider in a neighboring parish with a longstanding reputation for stark racial exclusion told me, “You sound like our kind of people.” I was flooded with gratitude that the exchange occurred over the phone so that my notoriously bad poker face didn’t give away the conflicting, strong emotions that arose in response to such a racially coded and deeply problematic statement.
Through the years, and even as my roles in the fair housing world have changed, I’ve developed a respect for testing as an extremely powerful tool for enacting justice. In a field dominated by some of the smartest civil rights attorneys in the country, it’s common to see how testing is useful in the context of fair housing enforcement. But it can also be an extremely useful communications tool. The comparison experiences that testing reveals make it easy for people to understand what many types of discrimination look like. As a result, and used properly, testing can affect the kinds of “hearts and minds” changes that many fighters for social justice recognize as necessary for building a more equitable world. Don’t get me wrong: testing is not a panacea for all injustice. But if done well and used strategically, it can be one extremely effective option in our toolkit.
For almost my entire tenure in the fair housing world, I’ve been aware of groundbreaking testing investigations conducted by the Equal Rights Center (ERC). In New Orleans, we repeatedly looked to ERC investigations for inspiration and guidance in conducting our own testing studies. During a series of conversations, I was continuously impressed by the leadership’s vision for the organization and its impact. This included a strategic vision for the role of testing in ensuring maximum impact for equity in housing. I also did my own research into housing issues in the DC area, and was excited by the prospect of:
- Local protections for housing voucher holders.
- Landlord/tenant law that actually has the potential to protect the rights of tenants.
- Organized efforts to thwart displacement of the District’s longtime (mostly African American) lower and middle income residents.
The allure proved to be irresistible, and my first day at ERC was November 2. Since then, I’ve tried to learn about the region (there are no less than three maps hanging in my office right now and I’m about halfway through Dream City), get up to speed on fair housing issues in the DMV area, reacquaint myself with the fair housing world, and develop a vision for the organization’s fair housing work in 2016 and beyond.
On that note, our top priorities in the Fair Housing Program for 2016 include:
-Developing our reputation as the go-to fair housing organization for the entire DMV area: This includes making sure that local community members and organizational stakeholders know the ERC is available to take complaints from residents who suspect they’ve experienced housing discrimination, and provide investigatory resources to refute or confirm such complaints for the purposes of enforcement under the Fair Housing Act and other local laws providing additional fair housing protections. It will also require the organization to become more active in regards to the intersection of fair and affordable housing locally.
-Building out ERC’s testing program to ensure that we are conducting excellent quality investigations responsive to the most critical housing discrimination issues of our time.
-Working to expand housing protections and enforcement of current protections for groups that are vulnerable to housing discrimination: For example, using recent guidance from the Obama administration to spur badly needed housing protections for formerly incarcerated people, and exploring the ways in which discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher holders intersects with race and gender based discrimination.
As you can see, we’ve got our work cut out for us. I’m excited to hit the ground running with ERC in 2016, and look forward to the possibility of working with you to ensure more equitable housing options for everyone.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in becoming a tester with ERC, I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can find more information about how to become a tester here.