Thirty years ago, a group of advocates recognized that housing discrimination was causing homelessness in western Massachusetts and they created The Massachusetts Fair Housing Center.
Today, a small group of staffers working for the agency with offices in downtown Holyoke continue to investigate and litigate housing discrimination cases.
In the fall of 2016, when Jacob Carter, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, began looking for an apartment for himself, his wife, who was 8 months pregnant, and their 2-year-old son, he ran into hurdle after hurdle.
“People writing back and saying ‘nothing was available,’ people not responding at all, phone calls to different landlords, advertisements on Craigslist, and just really no luck at all,” explained Carter.
Sensing a pattern in his failure to find an apartment, Carter deleted references to his family from his online searches and started showing up alone to appointments with landlords.
At one point, he signed a lease for an apartment in an older house in Northampton, but when he asked if there was any lead paint present, the landlord abruptly told him he could not move in.
“We had to find emergency housing on about 24-hour notice,” said Carter, who succeeded in finding a short-term rental. “It was a really hairy couple of days. We weren’t sure where we were going to land.”
Eventually Carter found an apartment.
During the apartment search, Carter said a landlord told him he could not rent to him because he had children.
A friend referred Carter to the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center. Discrimination complaints were brought against both landlords. With the cash settlements Carter received, he was able to save for a down payment and purchased a house where he and his wife and their three children now live.
Discrimination against families with young children searching for housing makes up a significant number of the more than 1,000 complaints that come into the fair housing center annually, according to executive director Meris Bergquist.
“ I find it shocking that so many families are denied rental housing with the only disqualifying factor being the parent of a child under the age of 6 in Massachusetts in 2019,” said Bergquist.
To prevent children from being poisoned by lead-based paint, Massachusetts passed a law in 1971 that required landlords to remove lead paint if a child under age 6 is living in the apartment. Massachusetts has the fourth-largest percentage of housing in the country built before 1978 when lead was banned as an ingredient in paint, but according to state health department records just 10 percent of those approximately 1.8 million houses have undergone any type of de-leading.
“I think that systemic housing discrimination plays a very significant role in the failure of more properties to have undergone de-leading activity,” said Bergquist.
Massachusetts has programs to help property owners pay part of the cost of de-leading their buildings, but very few take advantage.
Bergquist said the so-called “Lead Law” is a failed policy because rather than protect the health of children, as it was intended, it incentivizes housing discrimination.
“Landlords find it irresistible to avoid renting to these families rather than obeying the Massachusetts lead law,” said Bergquist.
In November, the Fair Housing Center filed a lawsuit in federal court that is intended to force the state to come up with a non-discriminatory policy to prevent lead poisoning in children.
Of the approximately 1,000 complaints the center receives each year the highest number are from people with disabilities, according to Bergquist.
“There is a shortage of accessible (housing) units in our area, a really shameful shortage,” said Bergquist.
A person who uses a wheelchair has the right to ask their landlord to install a ramp at the renter’s expense, according to Bergquist. Landlords can be made to pay to put in a ramp if they own more than 10 apartments in Massachusetts.
There is still racial discrimination in housing.
The Springfield Metropolitan Statistical area, which includes Hampden, Hampshire and part of Franklin counties, is the most segregated in the country when it comes to Latino housing and is in the top 20 percent for Black housing.
Some of the reason for this can be traced back decades to when red lining occurred and restrictive deed covenants were legal. But Bergquist said current policies contribute to housing segregation such as giving preference to existing residents to move into public housing when a vacancy opens up, and zoning laws that don’t allow multi-family housing.
“When municipalities are not actively trying to undo this segregation it is keeping it in place and perpetuating it,” said Bergquist.
Housing discrimination remains one of the causes of homelessness, according to Gerry McCafferty, the Housing Director for the City of Springfield.
“Both in Springfield and nationally, there is data that show people of color are more likely to become homeless than white people and the rates at which they are homeless exceed what should be explained by poverty,” said McCafferty.
Massachusetts has among the toughest housing discrimination laws in the country, but McCafferty said enforcement can be difficult.
“It is a lot of private transactions that are happening,” said McCafferty. She said people often don’t realize when they are victims of housing discrimination.
“There is a lot that is illegal that landlords may even know is illegal that they are doing because they are able to get away with it,” said McCafferty.
John Fisher, a landlord and author of the book “Property Management Manual For Massachusetts Rental Owners,” said many landlords are ignorant of what the housing laws require.
“There are a lot of ‘mom and pops’ out there who don’t really think of themselves as being landlords because they have one apartment they’re renting,” said Fisher. “If you are renting just a small upstairs apartment, you are as much a landlord and need to be in line with the state laws as if you had a thousand units.”
Fisher believes most landlords do not intentionally discriminate.
“The level of ignorance with so many landlords, especially the smaller ones, is unfortunate,” said Fisher. “It is bad for them and it is also bad for their tenants.”
The Fair Housing Center litigates about 20 cases a year, according to executive director Bergquist.
“Each case can establish a new policy that may open doors and end discrimination that applies to more than one person,” said Bergquist.
Most complaints that the center’s investigators determine to be valid are resolved informally, as what happened the both times that Jacob Carter encountered discrimination while hunting for an apartment for his family.
Carter is grateful for the work of the Fair Housing Center.
“If you think about the kind of security housing provides, and what it is like to feel safe going home and knowing it is going to be there and you have a place to stay every night. It seems like such a basic need and it is,” said Carter.
( An earlier version of this story misstated the timeframe when Carter said he faced discrimination in the search for an apartment. According to Carter, the incidents occured between December 2015 - April 2016)