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Housing inequality is a cheap trick

How do you put a price tag on civil rights?

Fortunately for Michael Adams -- and others like him -- you can't, because the dollar signs attached here would say those rights aren't worth much.

Adams said he wasn't in it for the money -- a $2,500 settlement -- when he fought blatant housing discrimination when trying to rent a Black Rock apartment. "I just wanted to get the point across that you can't keep doing this to people and get away with it," said the 47-year-old African-American.

But his settlement in a racial discrimination case brought by Housing Opportunities Made Equal follows another one in January that gave a single mom $2,000 from a landlord who didn't want kids. Last year, a grandmother who couldn't get an apartment because of a disability got $5,000, and another HOME case involving race and children ended with a $6,550 settlement.

In an era when spilled coffee can bring awards topping $600,000, such relatively puny settlements send a disturbing message about our commitment to fair housing. If the market places value on things, civil rights are pretty cheap.

It "speaks to the relatively low cost attached to discrimination here in Western New York," said HOME Executive Director Scott Gehl.

If the monetary cost to landlords is low, the emotional toll on victims can be wrenching.

"He just didn't want to rent to me, it was just that simple," said Adams, who arrived at the Black Rock apartment shortly after calling, only to be told it was no longer available. Suspicious, he had two acquaintances -- including his boss, who was white -- call and both were told the unit was for rent. He then contacted the Community Action Organization, which put him in touch with HOME. The fair housing agency investigated and verified Adams' suspicions: He was turned away because he is black.

Others get denied the right to live where they want because they have children, or because they use a cane or wheelchair, or because they get public assistance. All of that is illegal, and it ought to be worth more than a few thousand dollars if we really intend to send a message.

But Gehl still recalls the 1989 case that went all the way to a jury, which found the landlords guilty of discrimination -- then returned with an award of $2. Now, he says, defense attorneys have learned "what the local market is for verdicts, and thus the results have been modest."

Translation: As long as that's all a jury might award, there's not much bargaining leverage for victims.

But the size of the settlements isn't the only area in which money belies principle. So does funding for HOME's work, including the trained testers who uncover disparate treatment.

The agency typically probes well over 200 such cases each year. Last year, the number dropped to 165 -- but not because landlords suddenly got religion. Rather, Gehl noted, it was because federal funding wasn't renewed despite the fact that HOME had been cited by Washington for outstanding work. That, along with significant city funding cuts, meant the 13-member staff was halved and office hours were reduced.

The upshot: Fewer cases were handled. It's as if some in government think that by not keeping track of discrimination, the problem will disappear.

This year, the federal money is back. Good thing, too, since Adams' experience proves the problem never left. His advice to people who suspect they're being illegally denied housing?

"Fight it. Fight it. Fight it," said Adams, who recently found a place in North Buffalo. "If we don't fight it, we'll never get rid of it."

As the unending stream of cases makes clear, we'll also never get rid of it if we don't start putting a bigger price tag on the cost of doing discriminatory business.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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