Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

2015 fair housing testing conducted by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights



What is a fair housing test?

A fair housing test is a tool to learn more about illegal housing discrimination. One way of testing uses paired testers posing as prospective renters to measure differences in the services they receive from leasing agents, as well as the information they receive about vacancies, rental rates, terms and other conditions. These matched pairs of testers have similar rental profiles in every respect except for their protected classes, such as race, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, etc. Testing can be conducted in-person, over the telephone or via email. This round of testing was conducted by phone and email.

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How was testing conducted in 2015?

In 2015, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) contracted with the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance of Spokane to conduct a total of 97 tests, focusing on several different protected groups: familial status, disability and use of a Section 8 voucher. Familial status and disability are protected under both federal and local laws; use of a Section 8 voucher is protected under Seattle's Open Housing Ordinance. Testing was conducted via email and telephone.

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What were the test findings?

SOCR has filed a total of 23 director’s charges of illegal discrimination against 23 different property owners.

Familial status: total tests=32

  • Charges filed: 2
  • Positive Tests: 11 of 32 (34.4% showed evidence of different treatment)
  • Negative Tests: 21 of 32 (65.6% showed no evidence of different treatment)

Disability: total tests=33

  • Charges filed: 6
  • Positive Tests: 21 of 33 (63.6% showed evidence of different treatment)
  • Negative Tests: 12 of 33 (36.4% showed no evidence of different treatment)

Use of a Section 8 voucher: total tests=32

  • Charges filed: 13
  • Positive Tests: 20 of 32 (62.5% showed evidence of different treatment)
  • Negative Tests: 12 of 32 (37.5% showed no evidence of different treatment)

SOCR also filed 2 additional charges (national origin and marital status) based on information that emerged from two of the tests.

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What were examples of different treatment that testers experienced?

Testers pose as prospective renters, so the different treatment they experience depends on the information they receive from landlords and the questions they are asked.

For example:

  • Familial status testers received less information about rental units than testers who indicated they did not have children. Some managers advertised for “professional tenants only,” which would tend to discourage families with children from applying. In other family status cases, testers found that some landlords’ occupancy standards (the number of people legally allowed to occupy units of specific sizes) were too restrictive: for example, requiring a maximum of two people for a 2-bedroom apartment.
  • In the disability tests, some landlords refused to allow a service animal, refused to waive pet fees, or hung up repeatedly when they received a call from the Washington State relay service.
  • Some Section 8 applicants were simply turned away; in other situations, landlords refused to respond to applicants who mentioned using a Section 8 voucher. Other landlords refused to consider adjusting their leasing policies to consider Section 8 applicants.

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Why does this different treatment matter?

Seattle’s housing rental market is tight enough already; imagine being treated differently based on having children or a disability, or simply because you are participating in the federal Section 8 program. Equitable housing opportunities are critical for Seattle’s residents to thrive. The results from this latest round of testing show patterns of behavior that have profound impact on people’s lives.

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Why doesn’t the City of Seattle file charges in all of the cases where tests showed different treatment?

Finding an example of different treatment does not always mean that a landlord discriminated illegally. In a number of instances, the evidence from the test did not show a clear enough pattern or set of actions to allow a charge to be filed.

But the different treatment uncovered by this testing does show a familiar, disturbing pattern: testers who had children, were disabled or used a Section 8 voucher were treated worse than their paired testers.

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When was testing conducted?

The tests occurred between September and December, 2015.

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How were the properties chosen for testing?

Northwest Fair Housing Alliance made a random selection of properties with vacancies from zip codes within Seattle city boundaries and Council Districts.

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Why did the City of Seattle conduct this testing?

Most fair housing enforcement is complaint-driven. In other words, someone who believes they have been discriminated against contacts the Seattle Office for Civil Rights to make a complaint against a specific housing provider.

Testing offers a broader picture of housing providers’ policies and practices across Seattle. When families or individuals try to rent an apartment, they have no way of knowing if the information they’re told is the same as what other applicants are hearing. As a result of testing, Seattle residents learn more about fair housing conditions overall, and City government can develop strategies to create more equity in the rental market.

As a community, we cannot afford to allow rental agents to make decisions based on applicants’ familial status, disability, use of Section 8 or other illegal reasons. Housing discrimination harms us all. These test results remind us that housing discrimination is still commonplace in Seattle, and knowing this helps us to rededicate ourselves to work for greater fairness across our community.

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How was testing conducted?

This round of testing was conducted by phone and e-mail. In general, a testing agency will hire and train the testers, who are private individuals with no connections to the real estate industry. Testers are given Renter Profiles that specify the type of housing they’re looking for, as well as details of their income, work and family circumstances, etc. Testers then present themselves to rental managers and ask about available housing. They stick to their script and record their testing experiences in detail on a standardized form. Following the tests, the testing coordinator debriefs each tester about the details of the site visit. The testing coordinator then analyzes the results and sends them to SOCR.

SOCR reviewed all the detailed test reports as well as the overall results. The decision to file charges based on the test results rests with SOCR.

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What gives you the authority to test private properties?

The courts have consistently determined that testing is a legitimate and lawful activity, and that fair housing enforcement agencies may conduct testing. Seattle Municipal Code (Chapter 14.08) authorizes the Office for Civil Rights to enforce the City’s fair housing laws. SOCR also contracts with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to enforce federal fair housing laws within Seattle.

Sometimes people ask whether fair housing testing is a form of entrapment. The answer is NO. Entrapment means to entice or persuade someone to do something illegal which they might not otherwise do. Fair housing testing looks at residential property managers’ everyday procedures to determine their normal, routine business practices.

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What will SOCR do with the results of the tests?

SOCR filed charges against 23 local properties with the Washington State Human Rights Commission, which is conducting its own independent investigations.

We have sent letters to all property owners who were tested informing them of their individual test results. We have offered to meet with managers whose test results showed some evidence of discrimination to evaluate their rental process and to provide fair housing resources to help them to improve their policies and procedures.

The Office for Civil Rights receives $50,000 in funding to conduct testing on an annual basis. Testing in 2014 revealed discriminatory housing practices based on race, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity.

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What is the Seattle Office for Civil Rights?

The Seattle Office for Civil Rights is a department of the City of Seattle, responsible for enforcing the City’s anti-discrimination laws within Seattle city limits. In addition to enforcing civil rights laws, SOCR promotes racial and social justice for everyone in Seattle through education, policy work and the Race and Social Justice Initiative.

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Questions or want to report a violation?

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