A Matter of Place

Feb 24, 2020
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A Matter of Place shines a bright light on housing discrimination, one of the most shrouded and misunderstood civil rights issues in America. The documentary connects past struggles for fair housing to contemporary incidents of housing bias based on race, sexual orientation, disability, and source of income. The film depicts three stories of people who faced housing discrimination in present-day New York City. They poignantly describe the injuries inflicted on them during these incidents, as well as their resolve to fight for justice. Through experts, civil rights advocates, and fair housing testers, the film also recounts our nation's often overlooked history of residential segregation and introduces viewers to systemic and pervasive injustices that, despite the existence of fair housing laws, continue to inflict harm on entire communities and individuals throughout America.

A Matter of Place: Transcript

I was shown a nice apartment on the top floor by the super of the building. We were looking around and poking around, as you do, looking into the closets and this and I’m like, “Oh, this looks nice!”
“Yeah, OK. I got to get my wife to come and see this!”  

And we went over and looked out the window a little bit— and he looked around and said, “Listen, I’ve been doing this for 30 years in this building, and I’ve never let one black person live here yet.”

(Title: “A Matter of Place” )

Housing discrimination is very prevalent to American life and one of the ways we know that is through studies that are conducted by private Fair Housing Groups that there really is pervasive discrimination in terms of rental housing, in terms of people trying to buy homes.

They may do it in a very friendly way, They may direct you to a different kind of housing opportunity. They may say “Oh, I suddenly have nothing available.”


Looking for an apartment in New York City is like Navy Seal training, I mean, it’s pretty intense. You going to go through a lot of apartments, looking for apartments on craigslist, looking through brokers – it can be quite challenging.

Constantly running around to all different corners of the city, and then also presenting your credentials. Our financial Situation was good our credit was good.

We both had good jobs; we both had good backgrounds. There was nothing that we could think of that would disqualify us from getting the best apartment that we could afford.
We both had really, sort of clear criteria’s for us what we wanted in terms of apartments. I wanted something that was spacious and sunny, and lots of light and whatever.

We wanted enough room for ourselves to be comfortable, nice neighborhood, etc. etc.

Finally we’ve found this one in Park Slope and it seemed ideal from the description, from the pictures.

There was a big snowstorm in progress it was just beginning on Saturday, and there were not a lot of people who called Andrea, who lived there, to make appointments to see the apartment.

So, we got there first. We were the first ones who saw it. Apparently we were the only ones who saw it because the other couple that was scheduled to come by never did make it because of the storm.

It was beautiful, when we saw it, it was exactly what we’ve been looking for. It was spacious and sunny and the apartment itself was in good condition, the building was in good condition.

The neighborhood was great. It was ideal.

Immediately Steve phoned the real estate broker to rent the apartment.

We had a pretty good exchange. She gave me a list of items that I would need to bring in in order to begin the application process. She faxed over the materials.

She goes, “it sounds like you guys are good and qualified candidates.”  I told her our credit score was excellent, she was excited on the phone.

I told her that the next morning I will be there bright and early. She said: “OK, great we’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Wednesday, I go to the reality office, and I ask the receptionist, “Is Rosanne available?”

Rosanne heard me, she stood up and said,  “Hello. can I help you?”

…and I began the process of giving her all of my paperwork. As I’m giving her my ID’s, to make a copy, for my wife and I –

The receptionist turns and says, “The copier is broken.”

At the time Rosanne had a peculiar look on her face… as though this is news to her…

Steve went to a nearby shop to get the required copies himself.

I come back.  I give her photocopies of our ID’s.

…and I start to pull out money, in order to pay for the application fee.

And she’s told me that “I’m not going to take your money.”

And I was like: “Why not?”

And she said that: “There are other applications ahead of yours, so if we get to yours, we will contact you.”

And I was just shocked and stunned. I was just – I was of the impression that it was a very different circumstance.

This is this common phrase that people talk about in Fair Housing that real estate brokers or landlords, they discriminate with a handshake and a smile.

It’s actually done often in a, sort of congenial way, as if, what we should expect is that, “You want to live over there with other minorities and not in this neighborhood. We have nothing for you here.”

It just seemed incredible to us that in this day and age, in New York City, that someone would decide that we weren’t qualified to live there, because of our race.

Prior to 1968 landlords, real estate agents— they could just post a sign, or tell you to your face, “we are not going to rent to people like you.”

With the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the Federal Government made such practices illegal – but only after years of implementing policies that had enforced discrimination and segregation in housing.

In the 1930s the federal government started getting involved in the housing market in a big way, for the first time, because of the Great Depression.

Most people couldn't afford to buy their homes, because you had to put out 50 to 80% down payment, in order to purchase a home— which of course would put that out of the reach of many Americans.

And the Federal Government decided it wanted to rebuild the middle class and the way that it would do that would be to start insuring home loans,

“Home ownership is the basis of a happy contented family live. And now, through the use of a National Housing Act insurance mortgage is brought within the reach of all citizens, for instance a 20 percent down payment and 40 Dollars a month will buy an attractive bungalow like this.”

But the government wasn't going to treat Americans equally, when it insured these home loans.

It began to create maps that it could determine, which areas were most insurable and which areas were less insurable.

They were pretty strict about not insuring mortgages and housing that was being built in what you might consider racially changing, or racially integrated neighborhoods.

Refusing to insure mortgages was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. What would happen is, if there were a few blacks on the block, the federal government says, “We’re not going to insure mortgages here ‘cause property values might decline.”

Now people can’t get a mortgage to buy properties on the block, so property values do decline.

About 98% of the home loans given to Americans under these programs went to white Americans— and they began to flee the cities, as black neighborhoods began to get more concentrated and more poor.

By the 1960s, half of all black Americans were now living outside of the South… and they were living in largely industrial cities in the North and Midwest. Cities like Chicago, New York, Newark, Milwaukee…

…and they were living in pretty tightly constrained areas, that were very dense, very poor and pretty dilapidated.

Low quality or substandard housing was perhaps the major problem.  In other words, people lived in slums. Buildings that, you know, didn’t have adequate ventilation; sometimes they didn’t have indoor plumbing.

Federal government began to give a lot of money to cities to, kind of, clean these neighborhoods up.

They started then to bulldoze entire black communities— and what they built in their place to- kind of- house these people… were these large housing projects.

So, the Federal Government, when they started providing funding for public housing they were required to leave it to the local jurisdiction to decide where it was going to be built.

Typically they did that by segregating the housing: Building public housing for whites in white neighborhoods, and building public housing for blacks in black neighborhoods.

And so suddenly, you had thousands of thousands of almost entirely poor African-Americans, cut off a lot of times from any type of opportunity, cut off shopping centers, cut off from white communities, often by highway systems, or by rivers or by train tracks… and so these communities became very, very isolated.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1960s, these northern urban communities experienced increasing unrest.

The ghettos that had been created by federal policy began to combust. From 1965 until 1968, more than a hundred northern cities burst into flames.

[PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON (original archival footage)]
“No society can tolerate massive violence anymore than a body can tolerate massive disease. We need to know the answer, I think, to three basic questions about these riots: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to study the causes of urban unrest.

In March 1968, the Commission report found America's white majority and the federal government complicit in creating the conditions underlying the riots. The commission stated that America was becoming two separate and unequal nations - one black and one white.

Then, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is shot, on the balcony of a Memphis hotel… and cities across the nation burst out in rioting, as distraught African-Americans and ghetto communities take to the streets.

Tanks are rolling across American cities.  Army combat troops are in the capital and Congress is being guarded by the National Guard, for fear that some of the rioters in ghetto neighborhoods— just feet from the capital— will come there.

It is in that atmosphere, that this nation was finally able to pass the Fair Housing Act.

The Fair Housing Act did two very important things, and… the one that everybody focused on at the time was that it outlawed discrimination, on the basis of race, in housing transactions.

There was another provision that mandated that all federal departments and agencies administer their housing and community development programs in a manner that affirmatively furthers fair housing.  That second directive— really speaks to, and acknowledges, the role that the federal government had heretofore played in creating, and perpetuating and supporting, and exacerbating— not just a dual housing market, but a dual society.

In the area of housing, the Fair Housing Act now protects people based on race, color, national origin, sex, family status, religion, and disability. Many states and local communities have passed fair housing laws that offer additional protections based on age, marital status, source of income, sexual orientation and other characteristics.   Many of the cases brought on behalf of victims of discrimination are pursued with the assistance of non-profit fair housing organizations across the country. These cases take many forms.


In 2006, 32 year-old William moved to New York City.

I was looking for apartments, and I found one in the Bronx. A one-bedroom apartment: it was nice, small, and I was happy, you know, wanted to fix it up and everything in its place and all that.

His new home felt comfortable, until the day one of his neighbors came to his door.

She said she wanted to talk to me and I say, “Sure!  Now, what’s up?”

She told me that the super told her that there was a fag living next door —and for her to watch her husband— because I was going to rape him.  (pause)

I don’t let everybody know that I’m gay, but, practically everybody knows.

Later  the super began to harass William in more directly.

About 2007, that’s when the name-calling started.

He was calling me a fag, you know… calling me a whore, you know…

Names like that… and I felt uncomfortable.

We usually get our rents they give it to the super, the super puts it under the door to each tenant.

So I went to my house… and when I opened my door, my rent bill was already under the door.

When I opened it, I was kind of shocked. My rent bill— he put “fag” on it!

William repeatedly found his door and mailbox defaced with anti-gay slurs and he was verbally harassed when he left his apartment.

I don’t know if he has something, like, against gay people. I don’t know.

But…he hasn’t been harassing anybody in the building but me.

The other tenants joined William in signing complaints to building management – asking them to remove the super.

I’m asking him: what’s going to happen? This is going too far now.  I don’t want to stay there and wait until it gets violent.

He said, “No, we working on it. We thought that we are going to fire him, but we have to go through all the paperwork. If it does happen, you’ll be the first one to know.” (pause)

He never called. I never got a response… or anything.

For the management company or the landlord of a building, where they’ve received a complaint about harassment—they’ll often turning the other way and not doing anything appears to them, in the short run, to be the best response.

Because for them, maybe the tenant will move out; they’ll just rent to somebody else.

I was saying, “Why should I leave, if I’m paying my rent. I’m supposed to be safe in my own apartment. Why they don’t get a rid of him?”

In the situation where a tenant is being harassed, if they’ve complained to the landlord about the harassment, and the landlord hasn’t taken steps to stop it— what are their options?

Eventually William found help at the Fair Housing Justice Center, which investigated his complaint and connected him to attorneys.

After hearing testimony about the numerous incidents of continued harassment by the building superintendent - and the inaction of building management, a jury ruled in favor of William and awarded damages.

You don’t know when it’s safe to be at home. And maybe it is never safe to be at home.

And that kind of harassment, which is very common, whether its racial harassment or harassment because of sexual orientation, leaves people very frightened, fearful— (that) it might happen again to them in the next place that they live.

And what can they do—what can they do to help prevent the harassment in the future.

What’s challenging is, that that harassment is not something that they’ve caused.

I never swore to him or got loud with him, talked to him nasty. I gave him respect from day one, all the way to now.

But they disrespected me. So, at least I got my justice though …and I’m glad.

It can never be said enough, that when individuals step forward and exercise their rights— file a lawsuit and are successful in doing that—there are just tremendous outcomes.

…not only for them, but for the community.

Fighting private market discrimination and harassment is only one part of the task in opening up housing markets in America.  Institutional challenges remain.

The decisions that are made by the federal government, by the state and local actors— as to whether to encourage more building in low-poverty neighborhoods— have a tremendous effect on residential segregation.

The low-income housing tax credit—grew out of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 that took place when Ronald Reagan was president. It was a way to encourage developers to develop affordable housing.

Some believe that privately developed dwellings using these tax credits would create mostly mixed income developments, making for more racially mixed housing, but it turned out that the credits were more profitable for developers who built all affordable units.

Low income housing tax credit also has some tendency to concentrate the development within relatively poorer neighborhoods.  

In some ways that’s actually a part of an inherent design of the program.  Developers actually get a bigger credit if they develop in a high poverty neighborhood.

Housing is a matter of place—the whole notion of the geography of opportunity, if you will, is really—is really the key—and the geography opportunity is driven by where you live.

Housing segregation impacts every other opportunity that people have access to. It affects what type of school you get to go to, what type of grocery stores you are going to have in your neighborhood, whether you live near a place with lots of toxins are not, whether you have lots of parks in your neighborhood…

These are real effects on real people— and the reason that real estate agents say, “location, location, location,” is—that they’re not selling you a house, they’re selling you a community.

While concentrations of affordable housing in poor and minority neighborhoods tend to cut people off from opportunity, a federal housing voucher program offers low-income recipients the freedom to choose housing in other areas.

It’s a program that the federal government runs, with states and localities, that provides people a rental subsidy that allows them to access housing in the private markets.

Housing choice subsidies can reduce concentrations of poverty. They offer recipients the opportunity to find housing in any area as long as the subsidy covers the rent, but exercising that choice is often extremely difficult.

Source-of-income discrimination is quite prevalent in the housing industry.  

It is discrimination based on an individual and family’s source of income, like that family might receive a voucher.

In the last few years and the last decade we’ve really seen an increase in states and localities beginning to have laws that say you cannot discriminate based on the source of income.

Even though New York City prohibits discrimination against people with housing subsidies, many housing providers still do so.  


I have AIDS, so when I don’t have housing… it makes it so difficult for me to take my medication on time.

Housing is key for anyone living with HIV and AIDS, because where they live needs to be clean and safe, because that home is their lifeline to healthy living.

HASA is a part of HRA, the Human Resources Administration.

It stands for HIV AIDS Services Administration… and it helps us find housing if we are homeless. It helps us with Medicaid and medical assistance.

In New York City, a great number of people living with HIV and AIDS are dependent on a housing subsidy to help pay for rent.

And when they go out into the rental market, with that housing subsidy, and are discriminated against, they are told very specifically that they are not going to be shown apartments that everyone else is shown.

I thought that because I was able to afford up to $1,180. in an apartment… that finding an apartment wouldn’t be that difficult, because… since HASA subsidized the rent… it was going to be a definite rent payment to the landlord.

So, I mean, who doesn’t want guaranteed rent money?

I would try to get out of the realtors first, that they had a one-bedroom apartment available
and once they told me “Oh yeah sure, we have a 1-bedroom apartment available!”

…then when I’d say, “OK, but I have a HASA subsidy,” suddenly there are no more one-bedroom apartments available.

They even said to me “Well, some of our apartments are for regular people and some are for program people.

The apartments that people, here in New York, living with HIV and AIDS, are given an opportunity to rent are the apartments that no one else wants to rent and that means that they’re often moving into apartments that are not healthy places for them to be living.

None of the apartment I’ve seen were finished apartments. They were always apartments in a state of repair.

What they’re being shown is often very substandard housing.  It may not have even operating water or heat; it may not be in good physical condition…

It seemed that it was all that was available for me to move into.  You know when somebody shows you crap, you try to take the best of the crap.

Keith finally settled for a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, but when he went back with the keys to move in, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

There were roaches in the kitchen and roaches on the floor, as if an exterminator came in and a lot of the roaches died.

There was somebody’s clothes in the apartment…

The stove was not connected to the wall…

Actual outlet sockets were melted onto the floor.  

The place was in no condition to be inhabited.

So, I spoke with the closer and told the closer about the condition of the apartment.

And she minimized it and said “Well, all you have to do, Mr Short— is to sweep the roaches up.”

It affected myself esteem in a big way, because I thought that, well… maybe I am a piece of crap, maybe this is what I deserve.

People respond very differently to discrimination. Some people respond by internalizing it, concerns that they did something to cause it, that there might be something they could do differently the next time to prevent it.

I thought that it was just a way of doing business.

I thought that was the norm… and actually it was the norm, but the norm was illegal.

You couldn’t do that. And I did not know that… until I went to the Fair Housing Justice Center.

They sent testers out to real estate agencies— to see how they dealt with people who are on programs, as opposed to how they dealt with people who weren’t on programs.

The idea behind testing is that, you send out matched pairs of applicants to find housing.

Testing is a tool used by fair housing organizations to investigate housing discrimination.  

Generally it will be a black person matched with a white tester or Latino tester matched with a white tester or a mom with kids matched with someone says that they don't have kids.

It’s impossible to determine whether discrimination has taken place unless you conduct enforcement testing.  So, my job as a tester is to simply go to a particular housing site and to inquire about the availability of housing.

They want to determine whether or not I’m going to be treated differently than a white tester or multiple white testers who are also going to be sent to that site with like characteristics.

We are able to compare and see how an African American potential renter is treated with being told: “No the apartment is not available.”

And then the white tester is told— it actually is available… and, “Let me actually go out of my way to help you apply for this apartment, because we want to get you there.”

More widespread use of testing would make a difference and there are some studies that even show that in areas in which there has been a lot of fair housing testing... and complaints brought, and even law suits brought… there is a diminishing of incidents of housing discrimination.  

Private fair housing groups have to be well funded so that you can bring more individual complaints. You can have more testing and bring more lawsuits

…and finally we need high damages, a set of remedies that actually make a difference and cause industry players to change their practices.

One of the things I find very satisfying in working with the clients I do… is that they feel very uplifted, and frankly made whole again, by the fact that they’re not just helping themselves, but they’re helping others.

Mentally and emotionally, it has helped me because… I feel like I have a home to come to, somewhere that’s is more than just housing.

I know that I can take my key, open my door and go in and cook my horrible meal… because, I don’t know how to cook, fix my apartment the way I want it to look, and have a place to come home to.

It’s that, I know what I’m worth and I know what I’m not going to tolerate and what I’m not going to put up with.

When this happened to us – it was absolutely wrong. …No, we are not going to sit for this. This is absolutely not going to stand.

We are all humans and we have rights.

We have a right to fight, and people like this shouldn’t get away with it.

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