A white family applies to live in an apartment complex. A couple of hours later, a black family applies to live in the same apartment complex. Then a Latino family, an Arab-American family or a family in which one of the members has a disability.
Assuming their income, credit history, rental history and the number of children in the family are similar, do they receive the same treatment?
That is the test Virginia will put to housing complexes throughout the state in the coming months. The Virginia Fair Housing Office, under the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR), will partner with a Richmond-based nonprofit housing group to conduct the tests, which will be financed by a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
To perform this type of testing, volunteers or contractors of various races or ethnicities impersonate families with identical backgrounds and compare their treatment by the rental complex staff.
Mary Broz, a spokesperson for the DPOR, said that it was still unclear which localities would see testers. But Northern Virginia "might be one of the best places" because of all the new construction, she said.
The DPOR will partner with the nonprofit group Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) — a group that is "very well respected in the field" — to conduct the tests, added Broz.
"Especially in these tough budget times being able to rely on some of their past expertise is something we're very excited about," she said.
FAIRFAX COUNTY has conducted two rounds of testing on rental complexes since 1999, said Michael Cash, executive director of the county's Human Rights Commission. In 1999, the commission conducted 157 tests and found evidence of discrimination in 25.5 percent of the tests. In 2001, the commission sent testers out on 125 tests and found 13.6 percent of the tests showed evidence of discrimination.
Cash attributed the drop in discrimination to two factors.
"One, they know we're testing and two, we're providing them with information," he said.
The results of a third test are due out later this year.
Virginia has never before conducted this type of test statewide, said Constance Chamberlin, the president of HOME.
"It is a real indication of the commitment of the current administration of making sure that discrimination is limited," she said.
But she would not say where the tests would be conducted because it might have an effect on the tests' outcome.
"The purpose is to find out what happens in the normal course of events," she said. "We need to have people just conducting their business as they would normally."
HOME conducted some tests a couple of years ago primarily in the Hampton Roads area and in towns such as Roanoke or Fredericksburg. No Fairfax County locations were tested.
"We found that somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of all multifamily housing that was supposed to be accessible wasn't," she said. "As far as discrimination against African-Americans, it varied from locality to locality but it too was very high. Over 50 percent in every case."
HOME uses trained volunteers who are paid a small stipend to conduct the tests. The work can be stressful, said Chamberlin.
"It is really acting," she said.
The testers must take careful notes and report their experiences accurately, she added.
"The audit test is not designed in any way to entrap anyone."
Broz said the number of complaints by disabled people has been on the rise.
"There are only a few things that matter in fair housing," she said. "The only things that matter is your income, your credit history, your rental history and your criminal history, but everything else doesn't."