St. Louis housing group alleges discrimination in ads

Thursday, September 24, 2009 | 5:15 p.m. CDT; updated 5:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 24, 2009

ST. LOUIS — When Sonja McClendon searched for senior housing for her 87-year-old black father in St. Louis County, she spotted advertisements for housing centers that didn't feature any black people.

"That's offensive," she said. "It says that's who lives here and maybe that's the way we want to keep it." She kept looking until she found ads, and a skilled-care housing option, that included black people.

On Thursday, the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council said it was filing 14 fair housing complaints with the Department of Housing and Urban Development against senior housing providers over ads it called discriminatory. McClendon, the council's board president, was interviewed by telephone following a news conference on the filing.

The council, a private, not-for-profit agency that targets housing discrimination in Missouri and Illinois, examined advertising practices of more than 60 operators in more than 160 senior communities in the St. Louis region.

The council's director, Will Jordan, and assistant director Mira Tanna alleged several housing providers unlawfully targeted their marketing by showing only white residents in ads or used phrases suggesting a preference for people of a particular religion or those without disabilities.

In some cases, the only black people shown were opening doors or cooking for white residents.

"Housing providers that avoid blatantly discriminatory language may still violate the Fair Housing Act when they, for instance, depict minorities only as employees, display a cross or a Star of David or exclusively show photographs of able-bodied residents," the council wrote in its findings.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, familial status and disability.

Tanna, one of the report's authors, highlighted places like Mari De Villa retirement community, where more than 600 white people were counted in marketing photos with no black people.

At the McKnight Place Assisted Living Center, the Web site, ads and promotional mail show no black residents, but about a quarter of the employees in those pictures are black, she said.

Phone calls to those centers were not immediately returned.

Council leaders said that under the Fair Housing Act it doesn't matter if a business is just trying to reflect who actually lives in the housing being advertised. They said housing ads should reflect the racial demographics of the St. Louis region, which is about 18 percent black.

They also said that while many religious organizations help provide senior housing, advertising may be problematic if housing is publicized as "faith-based" or "a Christian community" or has a religious symbol.

"Such displays might unlawfully indicate a religious preference to the public, unless the advertisement has a disclaimer statement," the report noted.

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