City of Portland takes a pass on enforcing housing discrimination laws

Another great coffee-spitting moment brought about by political wisdom. This one from my friend and former colleague, Nick Fish. According to this Oregonian article, a study commissioned by the City of Portland found widespread discrimination in housing rentals. In 50 tests, 64 percent of Black and Latino renters encountered discrimination in rental housing.

Commissioner Fish waffles a bit, but the upshot is that it looks like Portland is simply not going to enforce fair housing violations. Instead, the City defaults to education of wayward landlords.

This is wrong in more ways than I can count. Teachable moments come in many forms, but most notably they include the process of enforcement.

As a trial lawyer, I am much more effective at changing an adversary’s thinking and obtaining resolution if I can point to serious and concrete consequences of misconduct. “Yes, Mr. Jones, I understand that you don’t think you should follow the law like the rest of us. Neither did Mr. Smith. After that jury issued its verdict, Mr. Smith seems to have…uh…changed his thinking on the subject.”

Commissioner Fish’s conduct sends a couple of poisonous messages. First, every landlord who practices racial discrimination just got a love letter saying that there are no consequence for flaunting the law. Bad move. Second, every person of color just got a bureaucratic brush off letter. (“Oh, gee that’s bad. Good luck to you.”) That’s a helluva a message to send, huh?

The ironic part of all of this is that city officials and good liberals wring their hands over the lack of diversity in this way-too-white metropolis. And yet we have elected officials choosing to ignore enforcement of civil rights laws. Seriously?

While it’s not nearly as effective as City enforcement, private citizens can file lawsuits for race-based housing discrimination. So I suppose I should be pleased because I represent consumers for a living and handle discrimination claims. Those who loudly complain about lawsuits and the litigious nature of American society frown on such notions. Worse, those who the laws protect have every right to expect that the government will actively enforce racial discrimination laws.

The truth is that I have more work than I know what to do with, given the nature of unregulated greed in our society. It’s time for the City to get serious about enforcing anti-discrimination laws. A few high-profile enforcement actions would go a long way toward stopping abuse.

My hope is that we see some push back and that the backlash on this causes the City to reconsider and enforce our civil rights laws. This reflection on this morning’s coffee-spitting moment is my modest contribution toward that goal.

David Sugerman

John E. Colby, Ph.D. says

Your commentary is right on the mark. Only consequences teach. Education efforts without consequences are just empty motions, as we have seen in the movement to allow errant companies to "regulate themselves". The City of Portland is shirking their obligations to citizens.

Unfortunately, many victims are uninformed about their rights, have not suffered great enough damages or are too poor to take on legal counsel. This is why it is so important for the government to level the playing field through civil rights enforcement. Otherwise, justice is only for those educated and wealthy enough to afford it.

As an aside, perhaps some civil rights lawyers should consider a legal action against the City of Portland for aiding and abetting fair housing violators.

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