At the Department of Justice, the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Civil Rights Division brings suit on behalf of the United States to enforce the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. The Act authorizes the Department to bring suits where investigations yield evidence of a pattern or practice of illegal housing discrimination.
In 1991, the Civil Rights Division established a fair housing testing program within the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and commenced testing in 1992. Testing refers to the use of individuals who, without any bonafide intent to rent or purchase a home, apartment, or other dwelling, pose as prospective buyers or renters of real estate for the purpose of gathering information, which may indicate whether a housing provider is complying with fair housing laws. The primary focus of the Section's fair housing testing program has been to identify unlawful housing discrimination based on race, national origin, disability, or familial status. The Section also has responsibilities to enforce Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the nation's public accommodations law, and, on occasion, has tested places of public accommodation.
The Section employs various means to accomplish testing in local communities, including contracts with private fair housing organizations, contracts with individuals, and by using non-attorney Department employees throughout the country. The Department employees are volunteers who have been trained to participate as testers. Since 1992, the testing program has recruited and trained over 1000 employees from various Department components throughout the nation to participate as testers. The Section conducts numerous investigations simultaneously at any given time.
Over the past eighteen years, the Department of Justice has filed 92 pattern and practice testing cases with evidence directly generated from the fair housing testing program. The vast majority of testing cases filed to date are based on testing evidence that involved allegations of agents misrepresenting the availability of rental units or offering different terms and conditions based on race, and/or national origin, and/or familial status and disability. Of the 92 suits filed, 88 have been resolved. Of the 88 resolved cases, the Department has recovered more than $12.5 million, including over $2 million in civil penalties and over $10.3 million in other damages.
The Department has demonstrated that testing can be a valuable tool to investigate housing market practices and to document illegal housing discrimination. The testing program has greatly enhanced the ability of the Department to identify and to challenge the discriminatory housing practices that persist in the rental and sale of housing.