Investigation calls attention to housing discrimination in Sonoma, Marin, Solano counties

Sonoma County had the highest level of discrimination based on national origin, while Marin had the highest overall rate.|

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A four-month investigation in three North Bay counties found that housing discrimination based on national origin was more common in Sonoma County than Marin or Solano counties, but that Marin had the highest rate of discrimination overall.

Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, or FHANC, examined rental practices at 20 properties in each county, using testers who posed by phone or email as either Latina or white potential renters with children.

The investigation tested for discrimination at the pre-application stage based on familial status (the presence of children) or national origin or a combination of both. It did not name specific properties, landlords or property management companies.

A small number of tests in Marin and Solano counties were discarded because of inconclusive results.

At four properties tested in Sonoma County, or 20%, managers, agents or landlords showed clear evidence of discrimination against the Latina tester based on her origin, according to the investigation; three other properties, or 15% of those tested, showed “some or potential evidence” of discrimination on the basis of national origin.

In Marin, 5% of properties tested showed clear evidence of national origin discrimination, while 26% showed some or potential evidence.

One of the Sonoma County examples of discrimination took place in Penngrove, said Caroline Peattie, executive director of San Rafael-based FHANC, a housing rights and advocacy group.

There, a Latina tester who called to inquire about an apartment was invited to view it, but after she mentioned she had two children, she was told it was too small and “it wouldn’t work.”

However, when a white tester later called and expressed interest in the unit for herself and two children, the owner said nothing about family size and offered to show her the apartment that night.

In an example from the city of Sonoma, a tester posing as a Latina with two kids responded to a listing and, Peattie said, was told by the landlord that he was prioritizing applicants with one or two occupants.

He said he would show her the unit but already had many interested applicants, many of them single occupants. When a tester posing as a white woman with two kids inquired about the same property the next day, the same person offered to show her the unit the next day. The landlord did not mention wanting to prioritize smaller households.

The investigation was conducted January through April 2023 and made public last month. FHANC serves only Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties.

‘Additional barriers’

“Particularly for single Latinx mothers, both familial status and national origin discrimination end up posing additional barriers to housing at a time when the Bay Area housing market is already extraordinarily tight,” said Peattie.

The most overall housing discrimination occurred in Marin County — where 67% of the tests revealed at least some evidence of discrimination — the FHANC investigation concluded. Marin also had the most discrimination based on familial status, 53% of the properties tested, the investigation found.

“What this tells me is that in both (Marin and Sonoma) counties there's a lot more work that needs to be done around educating housing providers about fair housing laws,” Peattie said.

Jennie Rihl, president of the 66-member Marin/Sonoma chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers, or NARPM, said the findings were not surprising — with a caveat.

“I find it believable. It's unfortunate, but racism still exists in this country,” said Rihl, a Santa Rosa property manager with Pure Property Management. ”I mean, this country started out as a racist nation. And, you know, we've been fighting racism for a very long time.”

However, Rihl added, property management companies — she estimated such companies oversee 40% to 45% of Sonoma County’s rental properties — are invested in following fair housing laws because, for one thing, their licenses are at risk if they don’t, and for another, “just to be a good human.”

Indeed, the study found that most examples of discrimination occurred as small- or medium-size properties.

“I really doubt that most of (the investigation’s) responses that did come back with clear evidence of discrimination were from any management company working in our counties,” Rihl said, adding that NARPM conducts regular fair housing law training to guard against discriminatory practices.

Peattie said that while it is true that there is more evidence of discrimination at smaller properties, medium-size properties range up to 50 units, and “we have seen a number of examples and types of housing discrimination at larger properties, as evidenced by the complaints … and other testing we’ve done.”

Trained testers

For the investigation — FHANC’s fifth since 2005 that has looked into discrimination based on national origin — trained testers whose names and voices were identifiable as Latina called potential landlords posing as prospective tenants for one- or two-bedroom units and saying they had at least one child, depending on the apartment size. Testers who were identifiably white did the same. The Latina testers also displayed slightly higher incomes and more stable rental histories.

For email tests, three separate email profiles were created, one that was Latina, one that was white or non-Latina, and one, without children, that was used to check if there was a vacancy if neither of the first two profiles got a response.

In all three counties, the investigation found that small (up to four units) and medium landlords (five to 50 units) were most likely to respond to testers’ inquiries in discriminatory fashion. For example, across all three counties, 72% of small landlords and 67% of medium-size landlords showed evidence of either national origin or familial status discrimination, while only 24% of the tests of larger landlords did.

“Smaller landlords might have just a few units and (fair housing laws) are not necessarily what they're focused on. And they may not have the same kind of resources that they do at larger properties” in terms of employee training, Peattie said.

However, she added, “when you see race and national origin discrimination, it does definitely raise a concern about what is going on for the housing provider that they are treating this Latinx family or that Black family or this Asian family differently from a white family — that is always a big concern.”

Nine properties were tested in Santa Rosa, four in Petaluma, three each in north and south Sonoma County and one in west Sonoma County. Overall, 15 small or medium properties and five large properties were tested in Sonoma County.

Race and SOI Audit Report 2021-22 (006).pdf

A 2022 FHANC investigation in Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties looked at the experience of rental applicants who were Black and had federal housing vouchers. That investigation found that the most evidence of housing discrimination based on race and also of source of income took place in Sonoma County.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 707-387-2960 or On X (Twitter) @jeremyhay

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