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“Where you live determines where you work, where you go to school …. EVERYTHING.”

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The agency ran over 150 tests in 2014.|Trevor Hass, staff photo

Undercover testers learn to investigate Syracuse landlords suspected of shady practices

TrevorHass

Greg Ayers methodically paces around the table of 12, right hand resting in his pocket and his left clenching a clicker.

Ayers, who stands 6-feet-4 and goes 265 pounds, commands everyone’s attention. He’s dressed in a blue polo and dark jeans, sporting a pencil-thin mustache, sleek glasses and black boots with a skinny electric pink stripe.

“What would you ask?” Ayers says.

“Is there parking?” one of his students says. “Is that parking included?” chimes in another. “Are people there 24 hours a day?” inquires a third.

Ayers nods his head approvingly. “It’s OK to write these things down because you’re looking for an apartment,” he says. Ayers, 33, works at CNY Fair Housing at 731 James St. in Syracuse as the enforcement manager. His main task is to coordinate housing tests to ultimately expose and curb housing discrimination throughout Central and Northern New York.

This particular exchange is part of a crash course.

Over two hours on an early evening in February, Ayers educates the agency’s newest crop of housing testers. The 12 testers – seven females and five males – learn the process step by step and the do’s and don’ts of their role posing as “real” renters searching for apartments. It’s a part-time gig, but their work involves undercover investigating and can lead to lawsuits and settlements.

The CNY Fair Housing office is located on the second floor of an administrative building. Testers enjoy provided tuna sandwiches and plain Lay’s potato chips, mingling, munching and waiting for the meeting to start.

Ayers begins the presentation with a video chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as King’s assassination. The video mentions that letters to President Lyndon B. Johnson were 150-1 against fair housing. Eventually Johnson spearheaded an effort that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

“Fair housing is now a part of the American way of life,” Ayers says. “We have come some of the way, but not near all of it.”

Ayers, who’s African-American, says Syracuse is the ninth most racially segregated city in the country. Then he rattles off ways discrimination occurs.

One woman had to pay an additional fee because “Spanish people tend to fry a lot of food.” Landlords lie about availability based off a person’s race. They refuse to rent apartments that are open. They engage in sexual harassment. Disability, familial status and race are the top three reasons landlords discriminate, and race is often tied closely to familial status.

That’s where the testers, who must remain anonymous in this article to not give them away to the people they call, come into play. The purpose of a tester, Ayers says, is to gather credible and objective evidence. Testers, who are paid $25 per phone call and $50 for each in-person visit to a rental unit, must complete each test within 48 hours.

What is CNY Fair Housing, and how does it work with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County?

CNY Fair Housing is a private, nonprofit organization that’s known as a “qualified fair housing enforcement agency,” which means it is recognized as a good judge of housing standards and practices.

It works with the city and county to assess impediments to fair housing, and to dismantle them. It recently performed a comprehensive review, which is required because we get a lot of money here in Central New York from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD wants to assure fair housing laws are being followed. Among a number of things, the city and county are supposed to ensure:

  • That housing is evaluated in this jurisdiction, and that discrimination is identified and eliminated.
  • That fair housing choices are available for everyone, including racially and ethnically diverse populations.
  • That fair housing is accessible to — and usable by — all people, particularly those with disabilities.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

How does CNY Fair Housing try to see that laws are followed?

CNY Fair Housing has worked with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County in recent years to improve its enforcement abilities and to create awareness about fair housing in the area. CNY Fair Housing is developing a new website and moving into a new office that will be more readily accessible to clients, especially those with disabilities.

CNY Fair Housing accepts about 350 complaints each year. About 75 percent of these come from Onondaga County and about 40 percent come from the city of Syracuse. The majority of complaints relate to landlord-tenant issues, rather than fair housing, and involve habitability, evictions and privacy. CNY Fair Housing advises these tenants of their rights. CNY Fair Housing does investigate to determine if the problems are a result of discrimination when the complainants are members of a protected class as defined by law. About 60 percent of the fair housing complaints received by CNY Fair Housing are related to disability. Family status is the No. 2 complaint, and then race.

CNY Fair Housing also tests whether patterns of discrimination exist against a particular protected class or within a particular geographic area. In 2013, CNY Fair Housing, under contract with the city of Syracuse, tested familial status discrimination in the Syracuse University neighborhood. In eight out of the 10 instances that were tested, there was some evidence of disparate treatment of families with children. In three out of the 10 tests, the instances were severe enough to warrant legal action. CNY Fair Housing says it has worked to educate these landlords about the law; it may pursue legal action if things don’t improve.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Subsidized housing concentrated in low-opportunity areas

Low-income families often receive subsidies to find affordable housing. These subsidies can also mean tax breaks for developers who provide affordable homes or participate in public housing programs.

The issue is that these subsidized housing units are usually provided in the city, which does not provide the greatest opportunity. Of the 4,598 HUD-subsidized units in Onondaga County, 86 percent of them are in the city of Syracuse. 54 percent of households in the county receiving housing assistance of some kind are in very low housing opportunity neighborhoods; 41 percent are in areas of very low educational outcomes; and 43 percent are in areas of very low economic opportunity.

People of little means have faint hope that things will get better when they live in an area where there is little opportunity to improve.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Ayers receives complaints from people who say they were discriminated against and the testers check them out – though some tests are random as well. In the case of complaints, the testers simulate the same situation to either corroborate or disprove the accusation.

There is also a second tester for each test called the “control” tester. The goal is to see whether the tester who fits a certain stereotype is discriminated against compared to the control tester.

This discrimination can be very subtle, and oftentimes testers don’t even know they are receiving unfair treatment. For example, sometimes certain testers are asked about criminal history whereas other testers are not.

In 2014, the agency ran more than 150 tests. There isn’t a set number of tests per week – rather, the number fluctuates and depends on the number of complaints. Ayers estimates about three of five visits lead to some form of discrimination. According to Karen Schroeder, assistant director at CNY Fair Housing, just under a quarter of the agency’s tests have findings allowing them to move forward with some type of legal action.

Conor Kirchner, who graduated from Syracuse University in 2008, is the staff attorney at CNY Fair Housing. He mentions landlords who turn away people with children.

“The landlords will say, ‘We don’t have any children here because they make too much noise,’” Kirchner said. “Sometimes the landlord will think they’re doing what’s best, or at least claim to. Well maybe you’re right, but it should be their choice,” he says of tenants wrongly turned away.

At the meeting, Ayers hands each new tester a white envelope with forms and information inside. The neat part for some of the housing testers is that they’re essentially working as spies. They adopt a fake identity in order to support a bigger cause, and that often involves taking on a new persona on a phone call.

“How will you sound over the phone?” Ayers asks the group. “Will you be nervous, will you be calm, will you be confident?”

“Gotta be confident,” one tester replies.

“Exactly,” Ayers says.

Greg Ayers says keeping confident composure is key.|Trevor Hass, staff photo

Testers call the phone number provided by dialing *67 on their phone and then the number. Ayers gives them a fake name and identity. They ask questions about the place and take copious, hand-written notes. They call or meet with Greg to discuss their findings as well as the best way to proceed.

Ayers tells them to leave their real cell phone numbers in voicemails to landlords. Testers change their voicemails to a standard voicemail in case a landlord calls them back. To constitute a test, one has to call three times or until someone answers. They are instructed to wait 24 hours between calls and to leave a voicemail the first and second calls but not the third. Even if no one answers, it still counts as a test for payment purposes.

Ayers and one of the testers, a middle-aged woman there with her daughter, simulate a phone conversation in the latter half of the meeting. The woman is supposed to have two children in the example.

“Hi, I’m interested in a two-bedroom apartment,” the woman says.

“Two-bedroom deluxe, or just two bedroom?” Ayers responds.

“Two bedroom. Do you have one available?”

“We do. It will be available on May 1.”

They thank each other and end the conversation. One tester, a middle-aged woman, interjects.

“What if they said it wouldn’t be for you because you have two children?” she asks Ayers.

“That would be discriminatory,” he responds.

Greg Ayers keeping up to date with the latest in housing news.|Trevor Hass, staff photo

The woman shakes her head in disgust and pounds the table with both fists. “Ugh! That happened to me so many times. Where were you when I was a foster adoptive parent? So many people said ‘no.’ I wish I had an organization like this to help us.”

If the landlord says the apartment is available, the tester, with an alias, goes to the location as the person they’re pretending to be. They can’t get flustered, and even if they’re blatantly discriminated against they’re instructed to remain poised and neutral. If there’s an issue at the scene, they should contact Ayers rather than act hastily and irrationally. If they are discriminated against they are told to report back to Greg, who will then send the case to Conor if a lawsuit should be pursued.

On visits, Ayers instructs them to keep their audio recorder in a breast pocket or somewhere similar. The testers laugh as Ayers shares a story about how one tester who started the recording 10 minutes before she saw the apartment and got tons of excess noise. One tester had the recorder on while using the restroom. Another kept it in her purse, which muffled the sound entirely.

He tells them they will never “ever, ever, ever, ever, ever” fill out an application. They write up a detailed – but not too lengthy – report for Ayers’ reference. “I’ve had English majors come and go, ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’” Ayers said with a grin. “We don’t want that. We just want the facts.”

Ayers said that in early February there were about 25 testers on roster, and about 10 were active. With his new group from the evening’s workshop, there were 37 in total. The meeting was lively and moved briskly, and overall the fresh recruits seemed to be engrossed by the organization’s mission.

One African-American woman, an employee of Syracuse University, said her niece faced discrimination. The apartment was advertised as available, but her niece went to look at it and the landlord said it was taken.

The woman signed up as a tester to help fight discrimination, but she notes that the idea of acting in secrecy is fascinating in itself.

Another woman, a student at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says she has a background in theatre, so she’s excited to take on another identity as a tester.

She and her boyfriend were looking for an apartment earlier in February, and one landlord told her they couldn’t live in his complex because they were a couple. Many people think of discrimination as race, gender and disability-based, but it comes in other forms as well.

Discrimination is all over. That’s why it’s imperative testers prepare diligently for their assignment.

“You may be called as a witness when you’re a tester,” Ayers said. “This stuff is evidence at the end of the day. You have to make sure your stuff is on point.”

Greg Ayers coordinating housing tests at the CNY Fair Housing office.|Trevor Hass, staff photo

Here’s what to do:

  1. Person calls CNY Fair Housing asking about their rights
  2. CNY Fair Housing employee explains their rights and gets the facts of the situation
  3. Employee judges whether or not it is worth pursuing via a test
  4. If the occurrence could be discriminatory, a test is done
  5. Greg Ayers calls one of the testers, finding someone who can fit the profile of the person potentially being discriminated against
  6. Run the test via phone and/or in person
  7. Review the findings
  8. If there is discrimination that violates a law, the agency will consider filing to state court, federal court or administratively through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development

Call Enforcement Manager Greg Ayers at 315-471-0420 or email him at gayers@cnyfairhousing.org

Call Enforcement Manager Greg Ayers at 315-471-0420 or email him at gayers@cnyfairhousing.org

Stephen ConnorsUndercover testers learn to investigate Syracuse landlords suspected of shady practices
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