Testers are people who call or visit properties to inquire about vacancies. They pretend to be genuinely interested in renting or buying them, but their true, secret purpose is to determine whether a property owner or manager is complying with fair housing laws.
Fair housing testing programs have proven effective at gathering evidence because their targets don't realize they're under investigation and therefore often have their guard down (and their mouth open).
For a good example of how much testers can help a case, you needn't look far into the past. A complaint filed November 23, 2009 by the Department of Justice (DOJ) against an Illinois landlord for discrimination based on race and color shows the type of useful evidence testers can obtain.
According to the complaint, the Illinois landlord allegedly refused to rent a single-family house in a Chicago suburb to a black couple because of their race. The couple suspected race as a factor because after they arrived to look at the property, the landlord was quick to tell them he just rented the house to a white prospect. The landlord also insisted that the couple wouldn't be interested in his other vacancy.
The next day, the wife decided to call the landlord to ask the status of the property they had just visited, without identifying herself. When the landlord told her it was available, this confirmed the couple's suspicions and led them to pursue a fair housing claim.
A local fair housing agency and the DOJ each dispatched testers to contact the landlord in the hope of gathering more evidence to bolster their discrimination case against him.
Here's what the testing produced, according to the complaint:
- The landlord didn't return a phone call from a black tester inquiring about the house.
- The landlord separately told two white testers that the house was available and invited them to see it. While showing the property to each of the white testers, the landlord: a) asked the tester if her husband was black (to which each one said no); b) told the tester about problems he had after unknowingly renting the house to an interracial couple; c) made various statements against renting to black tenants; and d) claimed to have rejected a black prospect's offer to rent the house at the advertised rent with paying a year's worth of rent upfront. The also landlord told one of the white testers that several black people inquired about the house, and he offered a discounted rent to the other tester because she was white.
Treat all prospects as if they're testers.
Sure, doing so is smart because it means not helping the government build a case against you. But, more importantly and proactively, if landlords require staff not only to get fair housing training but to keep fair housing concerns in mind when interacting with prospects, they'll be much less likely to say or do something that could lead — fairly or unfairly — to accusations of discrimination.
Interesting to note:
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) launched its testing program in 1992. Since then, the DOJ has recruited and trained over 1,000 employees to pose as testers.