Do fair-housing laws violate owner privacy? Boston reconsiders

It was once one of the broadest antidiscrimination laws in the United States. But in recent weeks Boston's 1982 fair-housing ordinance has come under increasing fire from wary homeowners and some politicians who see the measure as an intrusion into people's private lives and a violation of their rights.

Supporters of the fair-housing law say it is solely designed to promote fair treatment of all tenants in Boston.

In addition to outlawing discrimination against prospective tenants for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, age, and other categories covered by state and federal statute, the city's fair-housing law broke new ground by also outlawing discrimination for reasons of handicap, source of income, or sexual preference.

The measure was heralded in the civil rights community as progress in a city stigmatized in the past by racial tension and court-ordered busing. There was virtually no organized opposition to the ordinance in 1982. But it has since come to be viewed as a step backward in some of the city's more conservative neighborhoods.

In early November - as a result of a public outcry whipped up during Boston electioneering - the fair-housing law was amended and thus narrowed by the City Council. The ordinance was altered to exclude two- and three-family owner-occupied housing from having to comply with the fair-housing law. Such housing represents about 35 to 40 percent of housing units in the city.

Some City Council supporters of the fair-housing law said passage of the amendment was needed to help break a political logjam in the state legislature over a related bill.

That bill - the so-called Fair Housing Home Rule Petition - is designed to help the city's Fair Housing Commission (created in the 1982 ordinance) to investigate and prosecute housing discriminators.

Under current laws the commission can hold investigations, subpoena records, and conduct mediation between tenants and landlords. The home rule petition would empower the Fair Housing Commission to issue cease-and-desist orders, award damages to victims of discimination, and levy fines of up to $10,000 for landlords who discriminate.

Debate on the bill in the legislature was expected to begin yesterday or today.

Housing discrimination is nothing new in this city. A 1981 study showed that a black person seeking an apartment in Boston faces an 80 percent chance of being discriminated against. Another survey group sent black and white researchers out to view advertised apartments. While the white researchers were always shown apartments, blacks were told in 70 percent of the test cases that no units were available.

The City Council's initial action to create the fair-housing ordinance was an effort to eliminate such apparent widespread discrimination.

Some in Boston think the council overdid it.

Incumbent City Councilor Albert L. O'Neil took the fair-housing issue to the streets as part of his recent reelection campaign. ''No agency is going to tell me who is going to live in my house,'' the feisty Boston politician said.

His argument did not fall on deaf ears. Soon other city councilors were deluged with phone calls from worried constituents.

Some Bostonians were afraid the Fair Housing Commission would assign tenants to their vacant garage apartments or would require them to register their vacant apartments with the commission. (There are no provisions or powers for such actions by the commission.)

Some see the fair-housing measure as an unwanted intrusion by government into their private lives.

''I've been through forced busing,'' says Mr. O'Neil. ''Now this is forced housing.''

Councilor Bruce Bolling, who wrote the ordinance, disagrees. ''There is nothing in the fair-housing ordinance that tells people they have to rent to certain people. What it says is that you just can't discriminate. . . . It simply says that you've got to treat everyone in an even-handed manner.''

He adds, ''The real issue here is that there are people in this city who do not want to see any kind of equity in housing to minorities or others in a just and fair manner - that's the real story.''

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