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Take-Home Test

Memphis Area Legal Services trains volunteers to look for housing discrimination.

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Students aren't the only ones who have to worry about pop quizzes. Property managers need to worry, as well.

Memphis Area Legal Services recently held a training session for "fair housing testers" — people who pose as potential renters.

Memphis Area Legal Services investigates complaints of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. Using a federal Housing and Urban Development grant, the group also tests rental practices at multi-family apartment complexes.

"The number of testers we had before was causing the project to go slowly, so we wanted to get more people involved," says Webb Brewer, director of advocacy at Memphis Area Legal Services. "We need a pool that's diverse, because in testing you try to replicate suspected instances of discrimination and that can take all kinds of shapes."

For example, the organization might send in a pair of testers to an apartment building suspected of racial discrimination. After applying for an apartment, the testers record their experiences.

During training, testers are taught about the federal Fair Housing Act and what their roles are. When they are sent to an apartment building, however, they are not told what the specific complaint is.

"They know very little about what is being investigated, because we don't want them to do anything to impact the outcome," Brewer says. "We give them a very specific script: Your name is such-and-such, and you do this."

The testers eventually will be debriefed but not until the case is resolved. And that could take awhile.

"Ultimately," Brewer says, "they might be a witness in a trial."

Several years ago, Memphis Area Legal Services did similar testing that resulted in two separate settlements in 2007.

During the most recent training, about 50 people participated. Testers earn $50 per test.

"I think the economic situation is such that there might be more interest [than in the past]. We compensate people for their trouble, but we don't want someone making a second job out of it. We would rather have people do it because they're civically minded," Brewer says.

As for property managers, Brewer doesn't mind them knowing that testers are out there.

"It might give them the incentive to do what's right," he says.

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