A single mother with a toddler is looking for an apartment in Boston. She qualifies for subsidized housing and is searching for a two-bedroom unit near public transportation so that she can easily get to and from work and day care.

She calls about a unit. When the owner finds out she has a Section 8 subsidy and a child under 6, he tells her that the apartment is not available.

Identifying discrimination

Is this mother being treated fairly? This fall, Suffolk University Law students will have an opportunity to identify discrimination in housing and then do something about it.

Grant funds expansion of partnership

Thanks to a $150,000 grant provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Suffolk University Law School will expand its partnership with the Boston Fair Housing Commission to explore the prevalence of housing discrimination in Boston. The grant will provide resources so that students can identify and assess discrimination cases firsthand.

Students currently work on housing matters on behalf of indigent individuals, including fair housing cases.

“We are looking forward to focusing attention on housing discrimination,” said William Berman, a clinical professor of Law and associate director of clinical programs. “Our sense is, unfortunately, that it is rampant. Before this grant there has been limited capacity to do any systematic testing.”

Berman has hired a fellow to lead the initiative. Together they will develop testing protocols and analyze data obtained by the students.

“The grant allows us to pay students to serve as testers,” said Berman. “They will be trained to understand what constitutes discrimination in housing and they will learn about the neighborhoods they will cover. Most importantly, we will ensure that they have an eye toward fairness and objectivity and know how to report discrimination.”

Testing for discrimination

Students will make phone calls to inquire about listings or show up in person to view rentals on the market. The grant covers complaint-based testing, which focuses on reports of discrimination, and systematic testing to uncover a pattern or practice of discrimination. They will focus on discrimination regarding family status, disabilities, sexual preferences, and housing subsidies.

“We will assist individuals who have experienced discrimination and may handle some of these cases in our Housing Clinic,” said Berman. “We will analyze and report our findings to HUD and will suggest appropriate policy changes as a result of the information we obtain."

Developing critical thinking

To complement this initiative, a course on Fair Housing Law will be offered in the fall. The course, called Housing Discrimination and Landlord Tenant Law, will merge real experience with theory.

"We will bring the information gathered in the field to the class and develop assignments based on what our testers learn,” said Berman. "As an institution, our goal is to help our students become critical thinkers. This grant offers an invaluable opportunity to develop these skills by participating in real-life circumstances."