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SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns don't know much about fair housing law, and what some think they know reveals surprising attitudes nearly five decades after Congress passed a bill to prohibit discrimination, according to a new state study.
A small percentage of people believe it's OK to charge higher rent to people who don't speak English. Some say a building owner can refuse to rent to someone based on religion. And others believe a homeowner has the right to sell to a white buyer only.
"Those types of comments are very discouraging to me," said David Parker, a fair housing specialist in the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division.
Parker and Utah State University social work professor Jess Lucero headed the Fair Housing Snap Shot Research Project, a first-of-its-kind statewide study of Utahns' knowledge and attitudes about the federal Fair Housing Act. Student researchers surveyed 1,081 residents in 22 counties.
Among the findings released Wednesday:
• 16 percent agree that a home seller has the right to sell to a white person only.
• 9 percent believe a landlord should have the right to refuse to rent to a person based on religion.
• 3 percent say a landlord can charge refugees higher rent if they don't speak English.
"The fair housing law was signed in 1968, and we're still having the same conversations," Parker said.
The 47-year-old federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, family status or national origin. As of this week, Utah added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in state law.
Parker said residents' understanding of the law was lower than he hoped it would be, and that he found general attitudes about fairness and equity surprising.
Parker, who moved from Pittsburgh in 2010, said he'd heard Utah was an open and welcoming place, especially because of the number of refugees coming to the state.
"Then to see that people feel that folks that don’t speak English should be penalized with a higher rent, that was discouraging," he said.
Those types of comments are very discouraging to me.
–David Parker, fair housing specialist
As part of the survey, Utahns were asked eight true-false questions about fair housing law. The average score was 52 percent.
"If that was a test I was administering in my classroom, that would be an F," Lucero said.
Questions included, "Single people with children can be restricted from renting in an adults-only building" (false) and "People with service animals can be charged a pet deposit." (false)
Lucero said the bottom line is Utahns know some but not enough about fair housing.
"If we don't understand it, then how are we going to access the protections that the law provides," she said.
Of those surveyed, 14 percent reported having experienced housing discrimination. The majority was based on religion followed by marital status, single-parent and sexual orientation, according to the study.
Interestingly, Lucero said, when respondents ranked which category was most in need of protection under the law, religion came in last, though it was the highest reported type of discrimination.
Only 18 percent of Utahns know where to call or whom to contact when they believe they have faced discrimination in housing. The state anti-discrimination and labor division receives about 75 to 80 housing complaints a year.
Parker said he also found some encouraging results in the study. The survey showed 71 percent know the intent of the fair housing law is to prevent discrimination. Just 10 percent believe it only applies to minorities.
He described the study as an "action statement" on what fair housing advocates need to do to educate the state about the law.
Parker said the first step is to admit that people have differences and biases. There's nothing wrong with having biases and everybody has them, he said. But people need to better understand how those biases lead to the decisions they make about others.