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'Icky feeling' isn't enough

Ashland resident Sierra Campbell, a mother of two young children, is caught in a fair-housing quandary.

Campbell and her husband are trying to sublet a cottage behind their home on Oak Street. They want to follow fair housing laws, but they also want to select a tenant they feel comfortable having live near their children, age 2 and 4, she said.

According to fair housing laws, the Campbells are required to select the first qualified renter who applies for the $600-a-month cottage, said Moloy Good, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.

"Landlords need to not discriminate," he said. "There are no exceptions, even the 'I had an icky feeling' one."

Since the results of a housing council study conducted in Ashland were announced to the public last week, many residents have expressed outrage at the high rate of discrimination cited in the study.

Mayor John Stromberg has called on residents to learn about fair housing laws and reduce discrimination in Ashland. State and federal fair housing laws prohibit discriminating against someone based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, familial status, national origin, marital status and source of income.

But following fair housing laws — which do not allow landlords to handpick tenants — can, at times, be challenging, several Ashland landlords said.

"It has left us in many binds," Campbell said. The couple is also renting out their home in Lake Tahoe, Calif., while Campbell attends nursing classes at Southern Oregon University, she said.

"I've really learned that you've got to go with your gut, but it makes it difficult because if you choose not to rent to someone you need to have a reason, and it has to be a reason that's legally OK. You can just say, 'I didn't like you.' "

The study, commissioned by the city, showed a "shockingly high rate of discrimination" against blacks seeking to rent housing in Ashland. The report, completed in June, found that six of nine landlords expressed racial bias when showing a rental to a black tester.

Researchers also found that three of seven testers with children and three of seven with disabilities, or about 43 percent in each category, received discriminatory treatment.

Phil Weiss, who has been a landlord in Ashland for 20 years, said he completes background and reference checks on potential tenants to screen applicants.

"I've been doing it for a lot of years and I do get feelings about people one way or another, which is why you have applications and you call former landlords. Often you have a good indication what the bad feeling is about, and you try to look into it and see what you can find. It's not a science."

Weiss said landlords can feel conflicted about following the fair housing laws if a renter's application is clean but the landlord has misgivings about having the person as a tenant.

"I think that's always the case — you want to do the right thing and, on the other hand, you also want to protect yourself," he said.

Like the Campbells, Weiss rents some property adjacent to his Ashland home, he said.

"If it's something that's right next-door to your home, you'd like to have someone who you're compatible with or at least comfortable with," he said.

Landlords shouldn't treat rental application processes differently based on the location of the property, Moloy said.

"Whether or not you're living near where the rental is, is largely an irrelevant matter as far as fair housing is concerned," he said. "The law says you can't discriminate."

Longtime Ashland landlord Philip Lang, who owns 13 units in Ashland, said he doesn't believe in basing renting decisions on feelings.

"How can you have a bad feeling about someone you've only met for five minutes?" he said. "Is it maybe because the people are black or because they've got kids in the backseat? That's unconscionable."

SOU English professor Alma Alvarez, who is Latina, said she felt discriminated against by a property management company in Ashland 13 years ago. The company told Alvarez and her husband that a home was available, but when they showed up to tour it, an official was reluctant to give them an application and told them someone else had already put down a deposit, she said.

"Clearly there was a difference in the way that we were treated compared to the other people there, who were all white," she said.

Although she believes people can have intuitive insights, it can be difficult to determine the difference between intuition and racism, she said.

"We have the laws in place because, how do we know it's a bad feeling and not something that someone's been socialized to think about a group of people?" she said.

Minority groups still encounter discrimination in Ashland, Alvarez said.

"Unfortunately our experiences of being treated differently are not limited to housing experiences," she said. "Sometimes those of us that are different in some way or another don't necessarily always have an easy time, even in places like Ashland."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.