Allison didn’t think much about it at the time. It was just a strange comment – one that could easily be meaningless. She had no proof that something was off, at least not yet.
Allison and her boyfriend at the time, now husband, were looking for an apartment in Queens. She spent time walking around the neighborhood she wanted to live in, talking with local real estate agents about availabilities. One agent showed her several apartments and the last one she saw seemed perfect – almost too perfect. It was a very nice, reasonably priced apartment in a smaller building in the neighborhood they were interested in. Allison thought that there had to be some reason such a good apartment was still available. She asked the agent, and he explained that the apartment had been empty for a few months because the landlord was ‘waiting to get the right tenant in it.’
She thought it was an odd comment, a red flag for something. But she couldn’t be sure what it meant. It was only a few months later, after Allison and her boyfriend had moved into this apartment, that this comment was finally explained.
One day a few months in, a fellow tenant was talking to Allison about her new apartment. The tenant knew that Allison was interested in social justice and mentioned to Allison that another couple had been interested in the apartment. This other couple, the tenant said, had applied and been rejected before Allison and her boyfriend had found it. When Allison asked why the other couple was rejected, the tenant explained that the other couple was African American [Allison and her boyfriend are white] and that the landlord had told this tenant that he did not want to rent to black people because they were ‘too loud.’
“When I heard that, I thought that something needed to be done, but I didn’t know much about the laws around something like this.” Allison explained. She decided to ask her friend who worked at an economic justice nonprofit what her options were, and eventually Allison was referred to the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC). “I remember at first feeling really skeptical. I felt like I should report it, but I didn’t have high hopes that anything would be done about it,” she remembered. “As a social worker, I had worked with and for a lot of nonprofits who didn’t always get things done or see results from their efforts.”
But Allison’s skepticism evaporated once she saw what the FHJC was doing about her complaint. The FHJC investigated using testers, or actors who pose as ordinary home seekers to observe the practices of housing providers. In the end, the FHJC found that the real estate agency was discriminating against prospective renters based on race. The FHJC sued the real estate agency and a settlement was reached that included injunctive relief to change the agency’s discriminatory practices. By reporting suspected housing discrimination, Allison helped to ensure that what happened to this other couple would not happen again in buildings managed by this agency.
Exercising her fair housing rights also had a positive impact in Allison’s own life. “I never felt that I had made such a direct impact on interrupting racism as I did in this case,” she said. “It was very uplifting as someone who identifies as an activist… It provided inspiration for my own activism, which does not always have such immediate or clear results.”
“And that there are organizations like the FHJC doing this work has been really heartening,” Allison said. “It’s so inspiring to see such concrete, effective work being done against institutional racism.”
This story is part of a series called A Place to Call Home, which highlights the experiences of complainants who have experienced or witnessed discrimination in housing and whose lives were positively changed by exercising their fair housing rights. If you or someone you know has encountered discriminatory housing practices, please contact the FHJC.