Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid is seeking volunteers to help test for housing discrimination, boosting a program that had slowed down during the pandemic, and to honor the 55-year anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, color and disability. Minnesota's Human Rights Act adds a few more protections, including creed, marital status, sexual orientation and status with regard to public assistance.
Housing testing is a tool for investigation used to see if there are any variations in landlord rental processes, said Assistant Supervising Housing Attorney Elana Dahlager. Volunteers pose as potential renters and visit apartments or make calls and document their experience seeking housing.
Being told different prices to rent a unit or being asked for different rental requirements may be evidence of discrimination.
Most tests require at least two volunteers — one a member of a protected class and one who is not — posing as potential renters, to gauge whether they are treated differently.
"It is a way to gather evidence of potential differential treatment of people who are seeking apartments and other homes," Dahlager said.
Legal Aid is the only agency that tests rental properties in the state of Minnesota and receives funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to do so.
Other groups test for differential treatment in home buying and mortgage loan access as well.
The pandemic meant fewer testers were needed due to safety concerns when many rental applications and tours shifted online. But now that more is happening in person again, the agency is seeking testers of all backgrounds to help. More information on how to volunteer is available at bit.ly/40ujeA7.
"In the past we haven't talked too publicly about this program," Dahlager said. "But as we have been rebuilding, we think it's really important for everyone to know that they have rights against housing discrimination and for both tenants and landlords to know about our program."
Volunteers undergo a background screening and are trained via Zoom once a month. After a practice test, volunteers may be called in as needed for official tests.
Minnesota Multi Housing Association President Cecil Smith welcomed the expansion of housing testing. Bad actors in the housing industry are painful for those who take pride in the profession, he said.
"Our members take this extremely seriously. They train regularly on it," Smith said. "We're trying to always adhere to the highest current standards in fair housing practices and understanding as the law continues to evolve."
Legal Aid does not always find evidence of discrimination after tests and investigation. Still, Dahlager encourages people to reach out.
"Our team motto at this point is if you feel like something's off, you should give us a call," she said.