BATTLE CREEK, MICH. - White prospective homeowners received better treatment and service from Battle Creek real estate agents than their black counterparts who were "better-qualified consumers," according to a fair housing investigation conducted last fiscal year.
The findings, released Thursday at a news conference held at Battle Creek City Hall, reported that among 38 tests, white subjects were offered more listings, received better communication and had fewer discussions on pre-approval requirements. That's despite black test subjects being assigned characteristics that would give them an advantage, such as better financial situations.
"While we're drawing attention to a problem — and I don't want to shy away from the fact that it's a problem in Battle Creek — I do want to say that we're not just here to talk because there's a problem," said Chris Lussier, the city's community development manager. "We're also here because we have a community that does want to take it on, head on, and address it."
While the city has conducted previous fair housing studies, often required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because of federal funding, it contracted with the Kalamazoo-based Fair Housing Center of Southwest Michigan for $25,000 to take "a larger-scale approach" after hearing concerns during public engagement efforts over the past couple years.
The investigations focused on real estate agents and race discrimination, individual landlord investors and race discrimination and companion animal acceptance.
The tests "are structured in such a way to grant black testers the advantage in an effort to target discriminatory behavior," according to the investigation.
Agents were more likely to follow up with white testers, and black testers "had to try five times harder to receive correspondence or correct information." When discussing neighborhoods with white testers, they spoke positively of Pennfield Township and Lakeview, and negatively of Bedford Township; agents spoke positively with black testers about downtown and Emmett Township, "while warning against Post Addition and 'the hood.'"
Other findings included: White testers received more listings than black testers; listings for white testers covered a larger geographical area; and "most of the time, individual agencies did not offer the same listings to comparably qualified black and white testers."
The investigation also discovered a lack of understanding about laws related to persons with disabilities who have a companion animal. Ten of 28 agents denied housing after disclosure of a disability status, half of which were due to a no-pet policy.
It found "no clear patterns" related to landlord investors and race discrimination — testers in general received poor treatment and were shown rental units in poor condition. Fourteen advertised but uncertified rental units were discovered during the investigation. They have been reported to the city's code compliance department.
In a statement to the Enquirer, Battle Creek Area Association of Realtors CEO Kathy Perrett said the organization is in compliance with fair housing education with the national and state Realtor organizations.
"Among the Realtor CEOs, I have one of the closest relationships with Bob Ells, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Southwest Michigan," Perrett said. "We have worked together on several issues and initiatives on fair housing. In fact, one of our Realtors is the head of the local NAACP. We are constantly looking for opportunities to improve."
Battle Creek City Manager Rebecca Fleury said staff received a letter from the association this week in response to the findings, expressing a desire to work with the city on the issues.
"They want to be a partner in this," Fleury said.
Meredith Stravers, a member of city's Human Relations Board, said the findings were "devastating and hurtful." "I expect more from our community and I expect more from real estate agents and agencies in this community," she said.
The Human Relations Board, which has existed since the 1980s but was inactive until last year, has reviewed the report. It will work with the city and organizations to find solutions to the problems discovered by the investigation.
"This needs to not just be a checkbox item," Stravers said. "This is a community issue and we need to make sure that, as we're remedying it, that we're finding ways to do this that are meaningful and finding ways to do this that actually interrupt the system that is operating."
Lussier said the city previously conducted testing on fair housing but had not paid for systemic investigations. Many communities often fund what's considered easy to test, he said.
A 2013 city study conducted by McKenna Associates found several general barriers to fair housing in Battle Creek, including: "Unequal socioeconomics by neighborhoods" that limited access to services; "ancedotal information" that suggested local employers recommended their workers live outside of Calhoun County; availability of public housing was only on the city's north side; and city-appointed boards were not diverse enough, "which may prevent a wide range of voices within the community from being heard."
Kris Miller, program director at the Fair Housing Center, said many municipalities have not tried "to be innovative about what was really going on."
"They would do these reports, incorporate a little bit into their consolidated plan, and then just move forward and not really look at it," he said. "So, by the city really looking at what was happening and this 2015-16 investigation here, it was really an opportunity to be innovative and move away from what everybody else was doing."
The testing only involved white and black subjects.
Addressing fair housing
Here's how you can learn more about fair housing and how to report complaints:
Fair housing session: There will be a public training event on fair housing at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, at The Salvation Army, 400 Capital Ave. N.E.
Fair Housing Center: Contact the Fair Housing Center of Southwest Michigan at 269-276-9100, 866-637-0733 or fhcswm.org. It's recommended you document behaviors, actions and conversations. Record addresses, dates, times, phone numbers, names of businesses and any witnesses, and keep records of advertising, communications and other relevant information.
Code compliance issues: Contact the city's code compliance division, 10 N. Division St., at 269-966-3387.
Landlord and other legal issues: Contact Legal Services of South Central Michigan, 123 W. Territorial Road, at 269-965-3951, 800-688-3951 or lsscm.org.
File a complaint: You can contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of Housing and Urban Development at 800-927-9275. More information can be found at hud.gov.
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