Suffolk Law’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program Explained to PILP

Last month, the Public Interest Leadership Program (PILP) heard from James Matthews and Catherine LaRaia, Clinical Fellows in Suffolk University Law School’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program (HDTP).  The HDTP studies trends in discrimination, provides training on rights and responsibilities in rental housing, and participates in the enforcement of fair housing laws.

Matthews and LaRaia began by giving the class an overview of the Fair Housing Act and the housing-related protections afforded under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B. They identified and explained the various protected classes under both Federal and Massachusetts law, as well as the scope of a landlord’s obligation to make reasonable accommodations for renters with disabilities.  They discussed the impact of the Massachusetts Lead Law, which requires landlords to remove lead paint in units with children under the age 6, as landlords sometimes try to avoid the expense of de-leading (which can be substantial) by steering families with young children away from their units.  The expense of de-leading does not, however, excuse a landlord from complying with its legal obligation not to discriminate on the basis of familial status.  Relatedly, Matthews and LaRaia discussed trends in housing discrimination, such as the use of coded language, which may make unlawful practices more difficult to spot.  For example, advertisements targeting “graduate students or young professionals,” while seemingly innocuous on their face, may signal an intent to discriminate on the basis of familial status, age, or other protected classes.

One tool for flushing out discriminatory intent is testing, which involves sending trained individuals into the community to pose as renters in order to collect information on whether housing discrimination is occurring.  HDTP researches rental advertisements and, after identifying potential violators, arranges for both “protected” and “control” testers to inquire about renting the advertised unit.  The testers then report their experiences, which HDTP staff evaluates to determine whether the landlord may be discriminating among rental applicants based on protected characteristics.  Matthews and LaRaia concluded the class with a robust question-and-answer session, ranging on topics from enforcement options to problems arising from roommate situations.

More information on Suffolk’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program may be found at http://www.suffolk.edu/law/academics/59759.php

Meeting recap provided by PILP Member Justin Kesselman (Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP).

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