While working in the Housing Unit at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, I bring the historical frame of reference and the ability to critique that I developed at Brandeis.
I first became aware of racial housing discrimination, specifically redlining, when I was still in high school. Redlining changed the way America looked forever and through the government’s support of efforts to lock families of color out of white neighborhoods, the most steady and reliable method of wealth accumulation was denied to them. The racial homeownership gap remains a persistent feature of the racial wealth gap, although closing it is not sufficient to close the wealth gap.
The first time I studied this in college was during Professor Knecht’s class where we examined redlining through the lenses of capitalism and gender. I came to work at this agency with an understanding of American legal history that Professor Willrich and Professor Cooper helped me develop. They helped shape my views on legal marginalization, the history of dispute resolution, and what an agency like MCAD should do. Beyond that, my time at Brandeis has just further fleshed out why people discriminate in housing. Brandeis has helped me examine things in a much wider scope through a more comprehensive lens. This is something I owe to my peers as much to my professors. I can thank my work at The Right To Immigration for giving me the experience of listening to peoples’ story and helping them navigate a system completely unfamiliar to them. This is another really crucial skill at the Commission.
Now, the Commission will occasionally see cases of steering, mortgage discrimination, and discrimination in lending, but housing discrimination is actually much bigger than that. Failure to grant a reasonable accommodation for a disability is one of the leading complaints the commission receives. If you are a potential renter with children, landlords sometimes will not rent to you out of a desire to avoid the de-leading process, or the desire to not even check if there is lead. People who receive rent assistance or social security disability insurance often face landlords who refuse to rent to them, oftentimes out of ignorance for what the law actually says.
One complainant told me that she knew landlords discriminated against her all the time because she had a housing voucher, but this one landlord happened to say it in an email, so she just had to bring it to the Commission. This then makes us stop to think, even if someone did not know they could not refuse to rent to someone because they had a housing voucher, why did they think they could in the first place? Where did their preconceptions about people who need public assistance come from? Why did this landlord not believe the law would protect them? If they knew about the law, would they still have done the same thing or did they simply think they could get away with it? And what about all those cases where the landlord does not make it obvious? Or all those people who do not believe reporting will do any good? This is where the difficult work of education, direct action, and systematic change begins.
Brandeis prepared me for what I would see at the Commission but it also maintained my blind spots. I am grateful to be coming back to school with a better idea of what I want my education to mean and what I want to do with it.