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'This American Life' segment provokes larger questions about housing discrimination

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This week’s episode of This American Life, “I Thought I Knew You,” is ostensibly about miscommunications and misfires, but its intro about an interaction between a New York City broker and an apartment hunter is a fascinating study of assumptions. 

Adam Mansbach, an author, critic, and humorist, recalls looking for a place in Fort Greene in the early 2000s. Back then, the neighborhood was still gentrifying, and Mansbach was drawn to its “transitional” vibe—not to mention the fact that one of his heroes, Mos Def, was rumored to live there. He left his number with several brokers, and soon one of them gave him a call.

The broker, a woman with a British accent, began describing an apartment that sounded ideal—high ceilings, wood floors, the works—but then revealed it was in nearby Bed-Stuy, not Fort Greene.

Mansbach wanted to stick to Fort Greene, he told her—at which point, the broker tried to persuade him to give the place a try by reassuring him that Bed-Stuy had become very safe, evidenced by the fact that “a lot of white people are moving there.”

Offended, Mansbach fired back that he wasn’t interested in living around a lot of white people. The broker was shocked, he said, and immediately apologized, adding that she could tell by his voice that he was African-American.

Mansbach, in fact, is white, and he told her so. And the tables turned again when the broker revealed that she herself is black. The encounter resolved happily, with both parties laughing at the absurdity of the many false assumptions they’d both made in a short time.

Still, the segment's an important reminder that that such seemingly innocent misunderstandings can actually run afoul of New York City’s Fair Housing regulations, which protect residents from housing discrimination based on a number of factors, including race—and assumed race. This American Life reached out to the broker Mansbach had spoken to, who explained her remark about white people moving to Bed-Stuy: she said that because she thought Mansbach was African American, she was perplexed about why he’d be reluctant to relocate there. “If white people aren’t scared, why are you?” she recalls thinking at the time, and notes she would not have made such a remark to clients she perceived as white.

Though the interaction seems a genuine misunderstanding, pushing apartment-hunters to look for homes in neighborhoods where they conform to the ethnicity predominant in the area is known as “steering,” and is illegal under the city’s Fair Housing policies. So, for that matter, is making “offhand racial comments.”  

New Yorkers who think they’ve been the victim of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of discrimination in housing can file a complaint with the Law Enforcement Bureau of the NYC Commission on Human Rights. You must file the complaint within a year of the discriminatory incident; be prepared to meet with an attorney and have the contact information of the person or organization you’re accusing.

Despite the protections in place, though, housing discrimination is still a reality in New York, in many forms. The Fair Housing Justice Center is an NYC non-profit that seeks to remove discriminatory barriers to housing, and just last November, it exposed a rental building in Brooklyn for misleading African American apartment seekers in terms of unit price and availability.

The broker and her client on TAL resolved things swiftly and peaceably, but many discriminatory practices are not so easily addressed. Make sure you know your rights when you’re looking for a new home—and take brokers, landlords, and managers to task if you think they’re violating them. 


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