You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Feb 13, 2011 : 4:08 p.m.

Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan looking for testers to help investigate housing discrimination complaints

By James Dickson


Fair Housing Center director Pamela Kisch has been working on fair housing issues for more than two decades. Fair housing issues have changed over the years but problems still persist, Kisch said.

Angela J. Cesere |

"WHITE MEN AND WOMEN: Would you like to be paid to help investigate CIVIL RIGHTS violations?"

Anyone who frequents area coffee shops and eateries has probably seen them by now, the neon green fliers entreating the assistance of white men and women, Latinas and Latinos, blacks — anyone, really — in testing local housing discrimination complaints for the Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan.

The center has been investigating housing discrimination complaints locally since 1992 and looks into about 140 such complaints a year, running the gamut from racial discrimination to sexual harassment to family status to mental and physical disability discrimination.

Testing discrimination complaints might be considered a thankless job. Well, more like hobby, really, since no one is making much of a living on the $35 stipend, plus gas mileage, that testers receive per case.

And yet testers are indispensable to proving the discrimination that people believe has taken place when they call the Fair Housing Center to lodge a complaint. The center has about 130 testers right now, from all walks of life: Young, old, black, white, able and disabled. And the center is always looking for more.

Pamela Kisch, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan, said that testers can investigate claims that individuals could never prove on their own.

"As a prospective tenant or buyer, you're only going into a property once," Kisch said, especially if treated poorly the first time. "It's impossible to say whether you've been discriminated against or if the person is just mean, which isn't illegal. Testing resolves that question."

There can never be enough testing, Kisch said, but once a critical mass of evidence is amassed, she makes a phone call to the property owner, which goes like this:

"Hi, this is Pam Kisch ... we've done some testing at your apartment complex and have found evidence of racial discrimination in housing ... could we meet and talk about this further?"

Sometimes she gets a dial tone, sometimes the call is taken seriously, and sometimes an offer so insultingly low will be proffered that leaves little option but to escalate.

The center then speaks to the complainant, who has choices about what to do next. Doing nothing is always a choice, and some people choose it. Filing a state or federal complaint is another. Going straight to court is another.

If the complainant would like to sue, the center pulls out three names from its extensive legal contacts. All attorneys who handle the center's cases work on a contingency basis, which means that whatever money they do see comes on the back end, after a successful trial or a settlement.

Housing discrimination takes many forms, but at the local center the dominant forms are discrimination based on physical and mental disability, race, and sexual orientation, Kisch said.

In its early years the center took a lot more complaints about family discrimination — landlords not allowing families to have multiple kids in a room, for instance — but those have trailed off. The center has handle cases in so-called "student apartments," where a landlord will try to steer a family away. But that's not a choice landlords have, as family status is protected by law, just like race or sex.

The center in Ann Arbor has seen an uptick in mental and physical disability complaints in recent years, to the point that they've eclipsed racial discrimination complaints.

Since 1992 the center has settled more than 60 cases and won some $1.75 million in awards and damages for its clients. It has conducted upwards of 2,200 investigations.

Kisch began working in fair housing in the late 1980s as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. She had been involved in various anti-racist, anti-sexist causes but really found her passion on a fair housing internship in Chicago, testing family status discrimination complaints over the phone.

She thought that Washtenaw County needed something similar and when she returned to Michigan and finished grad school, Kisch took a job at the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit. Founded in 1977, that center has won some $11 million in awards and damages for its clients, including the 2007 Whispering Woods settlement, which at $725,000 is the largest housing discrimination judgment in Michigan's history.

Cliff Schrupp, executive director of the Metro Detroit center, was one of Kisch’s early mentors in the fair housing business. Schrupp has been working in fair housing since 1964, when he investigated discrimination claims in Saginaw. He’s been at the Metro Detroit center since 1977.

Schrupp said it takes a “unique set of skills and commitment” to make such a center work, and that Kisch’s tireless nature served her well.

The challenge of running a fair housing center is finding local funding, Schrupp told “We’ve lost centers in Saginaw and in Lansing over the years,” and it doesn’t take much more than a bad funding cycle for a center to go bust," Schrupp said.

Budgets for fair housing centers are precarious and unpredictable. Sometimes the center gets funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it wins its cases, sometimes it doesn’t.

In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, HUD funding was the center’s single biggest source of income, accounting for more than 50 percent of its revenues. Considering that HUD’s own budget isn’t set in stone, either, fair housing groups are in a precarious position.

In 2002, the center expanded into Lenawee and Monroe counties and rechristened the Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan, which it remains. In 2009, after receiving a three-year, $500,000 performance-based grant from HUD, the center expanded into Ingham, Jackson and Livingston counties. Just as testers are crucial to proving patterns of discrimination, fair housing centers are crucial in helping the government make discrimination cases in court, said Judith Levy, head of the Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. Department of Justice — Eastern Division, which operates out of Detroit.

Levy's been heading up that unit since May 2000, she said, and has taken referrals from local fair housing centers on several housing discrimination cases, including the successful prosecution last year against Washtenaw County commissioner Ronnie Peterson and his cousin and property manager Glenn Johnson and an $82,500 settlement (but no admission of guilt) in the matter of Ivanhoe Apartments, whose owners were sued for racial discrimination.

The Department of Justice has its own testers, Levy said, but local fair housing centers can "respond in real time." Once the DOJ takes a referral from the Fair Housing Center, it investigates the matter further, Levy said, interviewing the testers and reviewing their training materials and their reports to ensure everything is on the up and up.

"Sometimes that includes extra testing, sometimes it doesn't," Levy said.

Kisch, Schrupp and Levy all offered different responses when asked whether the nature of housing discrimination complaints had changed over their years investigating it.

While Kisch sees more disability discrimination than racial or sexual in recent years, and Schrupp said that the behavior of landlords, realty agencies and their staffers had improved considerably over the almost 50 years he's been in the business. Levy said that disappointingly little had changed in the decade-plus since she'd been heading up the Civil Rights Division.

"Housing discrimination is still alive and well in America," Levy said.

Interested in becoming a fair housing tester? Contact the Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan at 1-877-979-FAIR, or visit its website at

James David Dickson can be reached at


Jim Knight

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 : 3:24 p.m.

Several comments that contained personal attacks were removed.


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 9:33 p.m.

The Fair Housing Center seems to be accomplishing the impossible with these stings : they not only chase the ambulance, they also drive it.


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 3:28 p.m.

Tester's aren't helping to investigate infractions, they're being paid to originate them. Is the system broken or is this another case of an agency trying to scale caseload to a new grant?


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 3:01 p.m.

There is no doubt that there are stupid people out there who won't rent to certain types of people. But this whole "sting" operation appears to be created merely to fund jobs and lawyers so that they can go "sting" more people. At the same time it transfers money from renters to lawyers and the Fair Housing Center, raising rental rates for all. I have suffered discrimination in my life, but there have always been alternate choices. If someone doesn't want to rent to me they can goto He-double hockey sticks. I don't want to live where I am not wanted.


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 2:51 p.m.

The comments here remind me of why I should never read the comments here. It's discrimination, people!!! Illegal! This is how you catch those people that are breaking the law.

David Briegel

Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 2:47 p.m.

xmo, More justification for law breaking discriminators! Explain that "value" to us? Is it moral? Ethical? Religous? Is the bank robber "set up" because the bank was there? Stop hating lawyers (except those noble corporate types). You may need one some day!


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 2:30 p.m.

Let's look at what this "Fair Housing Group" does: They try to find victims so that they can punish the businesses that own the places where the "Victims" will live. This adds to the rental prices that these "Victims" will then have to pay in rent. Everyone else who rents at one of these "Fair Housing" buildings also has to pay higher rents. The winners are lawyers, the Anti-Business Fair Housing Group and the victim groups (blacks, latino's Gays, etc) The Losers are the renters, the poor, Businesses and the community! Thanks Fair Housing Group!

Macabre Sunset

Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 8:44 a.m.

Just remember that when you are complaining about higher rents for these flea traps, a good portion of your rent money goes to support the "lawyers" who take these shakedowns (I mean cases) on contingency.

David Briegel

Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 4:21 a.m.

It is so sad. From the comments below America has a long way to go. Still! Imagine the outrage if it was White folks who were discriminated against. Do you really believe that if you discriminate and get caught that you were "set up". American inJustice is still very much alive!! The truth hurts. The truth will set you free!

Joel Batterman

Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 2:41 a.m.

Congress removed most meaningful enforcement provisions from the 1968 Fair Housing Act before its passage. For taking that burden on themselves, Center staff and volunteers deserve our gratitude and respect. Without their work, we'd be still farther from fulfilling the ideals of justice and equality in this region.


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 2:37 a.m.

Wow What a waste of time and resources


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 2:06 a.m.

Basically wasting apartment manager's time as she trots all of her fake renters through buidings to look at units they have no intention of renting. Company's should charge a $30 - $50 application fee that could be applied to the first month's rent and this would stop this.


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 4:35 a.m.

So, just to be clear, you're saying that you think that race and gender discrimination is worth $30 - $50?


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 2:22 a.m.

So you're saying you think people should be charged a fee to look at an apartment? What if they don't like it and don't end up renting it? Is the fee then refunded since it can't be applied to the first month's rent? If that is the case how would that stop "fake" renters from looking at apartments they have no intention of renting?


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 1:48 a.m.

Wait a minute it is not called "set up" time... Everyone has a fair right too housing weather you are black, white, purple or pink. Wheel chair bound using a walker, cane, blind cane. I agree there is so much nit picking on who can rent from where. You did not look at that if you got in as a good person then did a crime how others would look at you. Abide by the housing rules and everyone should get alone. I leave you alone, you leave me alone, Live your business, I live my business. Say "Hi" in the parking lot


Mon, Feb 14, 2011 : 1:05 a.m.

Is it just me...or does this politically-correct version of "a set up" seem pretty tawdry and tasteless...sorta like an "oh well, the ends justify the means"...? I'm reminded of the cops who pose as 13 years old in "To Catch a Predator", or perhaps reality t.v.'s "What Would You Do?"