April is Fair Housing Month and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just released its Annual Report on Fair Housing.

Fair Housing is a catchall description for the rules and regulations established by the federal government under the 1968 Fair Housing Act which prohibited discrimination in on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin. This original act was passed at the urging of President Johnson shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is now in charge of federal enforcement. Gender was added as a "protected class" in 1974 and discrimination on the basis of disability or familial status was added by an amendment in 1988. Some states have introduced their own protected classes to those under federal protection such as sexual orientation or primary language.

The 2006 Annual Report announces that HUD and the Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) agencies received a record number of housing discrimination complaints during the year. 10,328 complaints were received, up from 9,254 and nearly twice the number received in the year with the lowest number of filings, 1998 with 5,818. Complaints, in fact, have grown steadily since 1999 and the1998 low was at the end of a fairly precipitous decline from over 10,000 complaints in 1993. HUD itself is unclear whether the record number of actions is good news or bad news, explaining that it could result from more knowledge among the population of fair housing laws, more willingness to report possible violations, or an actual increase in discriminatory activities.

The basis of discrimination complaints have remained remarkably steady over the last four years with disabilities being the most common basis for the complaint but with race either following closely or equaling the disability contention. In 2006 disabilities were the reason for 40 percent of all complaints and race for 39 percent. Familial status which covers marital arrangements and the presence of children in the home was the basis of 14 percent of complaints as was national origin (with complaints from Hispanics or Latinos alone accounting for 9 percent) and gender for 10. Religion and color represented 2 percent and 1 percent respectively. Retaliation, defined as payback for filing a housing discrimination complaint or otherwise exercising fair housing rights, represented 6 percent of complaints and was the fasting growing category, up 28 percent since 2005.

By far the largest category of issues behind the complaints (58 percent) was what is defined as "terms, conditions, privileges, services, and facilities in the rental or sale of property." An example of this would be requiring a higher security deposit from a member of a racial minority than from a non-minority or restricting families with children to certain buildings within a large complex. Out and out refusal to rent to a protected class represented 26 percent of the issues and failure to allow or make a reasonable accommodation (i.e. permit an assistance animal in an otherwise pet free facility or provide accessible assigned parking for a mobility challenged tenant.) represented 18 percent of claims.

Famous issues from the past such as steering, redlining, and refusing to sell have virtually disappeared off the charts, perhaps because the first two mostly involve institutions rather than individuals (redlining is generally a banking infraction where loans are not given or are harder to obtain in certain areas; steering is where rental or sales agents demonstrate a pattern of showing properties to protected classes to certain areas or couching advertising to attract a certain type of client, i.e. "nice family area;" of "located in desirable St. Matthews Parrish." Regulators such as The Office of Comptroller of the Currency, The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and state licensing agencies have been proactive in educating and quick to pounce on offenders and many big city newspapers have established strict guidelines for advertising. These, as well as HUD enforcement, have probably contributed to the decline in these offenses.

The HUD report stresses that, even with complaints at record levels, it is likely that many instances of housing discrimination remain unreported. The Department cites several studies indicating that minority groups experienced a high degree of adverse treatment, perhaps once in every five encounters with sales or rental agents. Hispanic renters reported experiencing an even higher rate of adverse treatment. Only one percent of individuals who believed they experienced housing discrimination reported it to a government agency and the most common reason given was that it was not worth the effort. HUD quotes several earlier studies that found that Native Americans have a one in four chance of encountering adverse treatment; the hearing-impaired encountered such treatment 50 percent of the time when using special phone equipment and mobility-impaired individuals in wheel chairs experience adverse treatment one-third of the time when they inquired in person about rental properties.

Such under-reporting is, HUD claims, because individuals lack knowledge of their rights or to whom they should complain. This was particularly true of persons with disabilities and families with children. Also, instances of discrimination are not as blatant as they once were. Prospective renters or buyers are not often driven off of front porches with racist or sexist comments trailing behind them. Discrimination is more subtle and tends to consist of consumers being told that a property is no longer available or that the rent is higher than would be offered to a different population. Therefore, to increase the likelihood that violations will be reported, HUD is committed to educating the public as to what constitutes discrimination and to demonstrating that the Department will take action when infractions occur.