Renting in Japan vs America: Interlude on discrimination

In my post on how renting works in America I included the following paragraph.

I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.

I should add that despite being highly illegal this kind of discrimination is far from gone.One of my relatives emailed me the following anecdote, which I have edited to anonymize.

I didn’t want to post this in a public place, but just thought it would interest you. Somebody, can’t remember who now, asked [my partner] and I if — in selling our house — we would give preference to someone Jewish. We were amazed that anybody would ask us such a dumb question. First of all, selecting on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity would be illegal, but furthermore, it never entered our minds. So here we are in the 21st century and many people are still mired in the 1950’s — when this truly did happen on Long Island on a regular basis (and probably everywhere in the USA), and was still happening well into the 1980’s (even tho’ illegal).

I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, which while today has a moderate Jewish population, until a few decades ago reputedly had an unofficial policy of excluding Jews. Montclair has also always had a large black population, but there has certainly been a history of anti-black racial discrimination in the real-estate market. For example, a brief 1909 item in the New York Times states that “The colored residents of this town are agitating a movement to erect a hotel for negroes in Montclair. The leaders of the negroes here say that such an establishment has become a necessity.” Although I have no other information, this certainly suggests to me that the black community has having a difficult time finding permission to construct the hotel, and furthermore, the very idea of a “hotel for negroes” suggests that they were being excluded from the hotels for whites, despite New Jersey being a Northern state, allegedly free of Jim Crow type discrimination.

Accusations of real-estate related racism today, however, allege a far more subtle manner. In the case of anti-black racism, there has been criticism of such things as the gentrification of neighborhoods in the South End of town, historically where the less wealthy blacks in Montclair have lived, near the train stations whose desirability has increased following rail service upgrades.

As for antisemitism, there was the case of B’nai Keshet, the Reconstructionist (which basically means leaning more towards culture than religion) synagogue that I and my family belonged to until I gave up on religion at age 11. From a 1996 NYT article on the phenomenon of minority religious groups suffering discrimination under the guise of legitimate zoning concerns (they have many other worthy examples in addition to B’nai Keshet):

In Montclair, B’nai Keshet, a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, ran into tremendous opposition to its plan to move into a former art school. After many contentious hearings, the township ultimately approved the plan. But then the neighbors sued, and incensed synagogue members with comments in the local press likening the group to the cultist Jim Jones, said Susan Green, a past president of the congregation.

I remember this controversy actually going on for years, with B’nai Keshet moving around to a couple of temporary locations before they finally located a building, but I must admit that having quite years earlier, I paid little attention and don’t even remember where they ended up. However, while I may have found them boring, they were about as non-cultish as a religious group can be. A lawyer quoted in the article makes an important point:

”Churches no longer carry the cachet that they once did, that they sweep away for all citizens all opposition, and that’s particularly true when it comes to smaller or less established churches — which means new immigrant groups or smaller denominations,” said Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress. ”Sometimes it’s flat-out bigotry masquerading as zoning.”

While explicit discrimination in real estate is illegal in the US and there has been much success in eliminating it from the residential real estate market (although I’m sure this varies greatly by region), it persists in more subtle ways, particularly in commercial real estate involving stores or religious/cultural institutions where minority ethnic or religious groups will gather.