No Place to Call Home: Latinos Suffer Housing Discrimination in U.S.

By Melanie Calderon

Displacement transcends more than geopolitical borders. It follows the Latino community in the U.S. through discriminatory housing practices and unresponsiveness from federal officials and agencies. And it does more than just leave recent immigrants without a community, but without a literal home. 

Though the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” — programs aimed at reducing poverty and racism — HUD has a history of under-serving the Latino community and turning a blind eye to discrimination even years after the Fair Housing Act. 

An internal HUD report, which used the category Hispanic, found that Hispanics are given 12.5 percent fewer options for housing units than whites and shown 7.5 percent fewer housing units than whites. Hispanic renters are also more likely than their white counterparts to be told that there are no homes or apartments available. 

The report also noted that Hispanics — along with Black renters — are told about one fewer unit is available for every five in-person visits. This mostly undetectable and pernicious form of discrimination, masked with a kind and seemingly polite demeanor, extends even further. 

A 2018 Princeton University report concluded that Latinos in New York City are 28 percent less likely to have a landlord return their calls and 49 percent less likely to receive an offer on an apartment or house at all. Moreover, another 2017 Harvard University study found that 31 percent of Latinos reported being discriminated against when looking for housing. 

Displacement can take on many forms for migrants. Leaving one’s country and community in hopes of finding another in a foreign country is the most salient way. But the systemic racism embedded in the housing market and the limited opportunities for this typically working-class population to find affordable housing also acts as a force on an already highly vulnerable population.

HUD was established in 1965 following the passage of the Fair Housing Act aimed at banning discrimination in housing. HUD replaced the previous Federal Housing Administration (FHA) notorious for its racist lending programs that actively excluded minorities. But these predatory practices disproportionately targeting communities of color followed the new cabinet-level agency of HUD. By the time Richard Nixon was President in 1969, HUD had stopped issuing FHA mortgages in central city areas known for their high-density minority populations. The Reagan administration, 1981-89, also played a minimal role in alleviating discrimination when it turned a blind eye to real estate companies inflating the true values of homes for low-income home seekers. HUD also oversaw various lending scandals that preyed on racial minorities, drowning them in more debt and exacerbating cycles of poverty. 

Today, discrimination in housing is far less pronounced. But that’s not to say that these discriminatory practices have been eliminated. As outlined above, Latinos still face various forms of discrimination when looking for housing. Apart from being shown less units and called back less often, Latinos are also provided with less advantageous financing information, quoted higher fees, and more extensive application materials than their white counterparts. And although the actors and policies responsible for the 20th century housing discrimination scandals have all been dealt with, other, less obvious, avenues for discrimination have opened up. 

Following the Great Recession’s housing crash, lending standards have tightened again, excluding the most vulnerable buyers and leading to what the HUD general deputy assistant secretary for fair housing, Bryan Greene, termed “suspicions of minority creditworthiness” once again. Redlining has made a comeback based on the “credit box” or credit score, which has disproportionately affected racial minorities, including Latinos. Research from NYU’s Jacob Faber has even shown that the wealthier black or Latino homebuyers are, the more likely they are to be discriminated against.

So what does this mean for the Latino community in the U.S.? Aside from the less salient forms of discrimination, such as not calling Latinos back or showing them less units, Latinos also face other forms of housing insecurity. Anti-illegal immigrant ordinances have restricted housing for unauthorized immigrants across 29 states from California to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness. In addition to these ordinances, HUD Secretary Ben Carson recently introduced a plan that would require everyone in a public housing unit to have legal status in the U.S., no longer allowing undocumented parents to receive public housing through their children with U.S. citizenship. And even when Latinos are here legally, their occupational status and limited English abilities tend to exacerbate discrimination against them when looking for housing. 

When Latinos do find housing, the conditions can be abysmal. Recent Latino migrants to the U.S. are frequently employed in the agricultural industry, working long, laborious hours as farmworkers. These workers live in employer-provided housing, unable to move elsewhere out of fear of deportation. 

According to a 2017 report called “Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State” by Carly Fox, et. al, this housing is often infected with roaches, has holes in the floor, no locks on the doors, and insufficient ventilation. And although seasonal migrant workers are officially protected from these sorts of abject housing conditions under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, year-round workers are left without an authority with whom to register complaints. 

HUD and other federal agencies have done little to help with these gaps in housing assistance. The government takes a reactive rather than a proactive approach to tackling prejudice in the housing market. It relies on complaints filed through FHEA, or Fair Housing and Equity Assessments — frequently criticized for underreporting — and encourages filing of these reports through government messaging. Studies done by the University of Chicago have shown that government messaging campaigns are effective at informing Latino communities about the avenues of relief for discrimination in housing. However, such studies do not distinguish between established Latinos and recent immigrants who may not have the full capacity to communicate in English with a federal agency, nor trust the U.S. government enough to seek help from them.

Housing is, evidently, another avenue of discrimination — another avenue of displacement yet immobility affecting the Latino community in inconspicous ways that receive minimal attention and disregard from the federal, state and local governments.

Case study:

HUD Funds Fail to Reach Puerto Rico Post Hurricane

The refusal of funds to aid in Puerto Rico’s inordinately long disaster-relief is just the most recent occurrence of prejudice against the Latino community through HUD. Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. More than two years after the hurricane devastated the island and killed almost 3,000 people, Puerto Rico has only seen one-third of the $43 billion allocated by Congress for rebuilding.

Most recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development delayed funding to help rebuild homes damaged by the hurricane. HUD, under the direction of Secretary Ben Carson, failed to issue funding notice to Puerto Rico, therefore Puerto Rico was unable to draft a plan that would have created structures needed to manage the funds. 

Carson claimed that the decision was dictated by “common sense,” while other HUD officers attempted to rationalize this by claiming Puerto Rico’s alleged corruption, fiscal irregularities, and limited capacity to manage these funds as clear signs that the Puerto Rican government was incapable of receiving such assistance. HUD’s Chief Financial Officer, David Woll, also claimed that the department was awaiting a report from the Office of the Inspector General detailing Puerto Rico’s “capacity to manage these funds.” However, HUD Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis stated that the report would not have significant enough findings to delay the funds to Puerto Rico. 

At the moment, Puerto Rico has only received $1.5 billion of the allocated $20 billion from the agency’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program.

Melanie Calderon is a senior at Cornell majoring in American Studies and minoring in Law & Society and Public Policy.

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