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Officials hope to catch and fine real estate agents who discriminate on the basis of race, physical ability, sexuality, or other factors.

As the City of Brussels seeks to weed out housing discrimination, it’s putting a new spin on an old watchdog technique: mystery shopping.

Starting September 1, the city’s Regional Housing Inspectorate is having public employees pose as prospective tenants, seeking evidence of landlords and home-sellers who unfairly bar new tenants on grounds of, among other factors, their race, physical ability, or sexuality.

The Belgian capital region has known for some time that minorities face discrimination when applying for rental housing. What it hasn’t had so far are legal ways to prove discrimination in individual cases, or tools to sanction real estate agents and landlords who break the law.

The mystery shopper-style tests are intended to bridge that information gap. The secret inspections should help officials verify first-hand whether or not minority applicants for housing are rejected for tenancies while non-minority applicants with otherwise similar characteristics are accepted. Real estate agents who are caught this way will face a fine.

The use of mystery shopper tests to demonstrate the existence of discrimination is common in many countries: In the U.S., for example, HUD provides funding to organizations that conduct such tests as a tool to assess the landscape of compliance with the Fair Housing Act. What is less common (though not unprecedented) is using these tests as grounds for legal action against specific bodies that have been caught. Under Brussels’ new plan, real estate agents found to discriminate will now face a fine of either €650 or €1,300 depending on the gravity of their offense. They’ll also likely incur some public relations damage to their business in the process.

The Regional Housing Inspectorate proposes two types of test. In the first type, two prospective tenants will apply for the same apartment. Both candidates will have broadly the same income level, but one will be a member of a group that often reports experiencing housing discrimination—for example, a person with a disability or from a racial or sexual minority. If an agent is found to refuse either a viewing or, following viewing, a tenancy to the minority applicant while offering it to a non-minority applicant who otherwise differs in no major respect, they could be liable for a fine.

On top of this, an agent could additionally be subject to a criminal trial if the test uncovers “incitement to discrimination.” A crime under Belgian law since 1981, this offense covers instances in which the accused can be proved to have intended to actively incite discrimination or racial hatred in a public place.  

The second type of test approaches the problem from the landlord side. Under this model, someone posing as a landlord will offer their rental home for marketing to a leasing agent—but on condition that the agent agrees to exclude certain groups of prospective tenants. If the agency agrees to the condition, and promises to discriminate, they will be liable to the same penalties as mentioned above.

Tests like these may be new to Brussels, but the problem they seek to rectify is certainly well documented. A 2014 study conducted in the city by the Free University of Brussels and the University of Ghent used such mystery-shopper type tests, and found that 23 percent of men with a North African name and 21 percent of men with a sub-Saharan African name faced systematic discrimination. Among women, 12 percent of women with a North African name and 23 percent of women with a sub-Saharan African name also faced systematic rejection by agents. Race was by no means the only factor in discrimination, however. In total, 29 percent of people with learning difficulties also faced discrimination, as did 23 percent of welfare recipients, whose rental payments are supported by the Belgian state and against whom it is illegal to discriminate.

These findings would likely come as no surprise to minority residents of the city, who anecdotally report that finding somewhere to live can be a nightmare if you fall outside the groups that agents and landlords consider desirable. As “Maria,” a mother of three on a livable monthly salary of €2,500 ($2,750), told Belgian national broadcaster RTBF, her background sees her systematically rejected:

When I call real estate agencies, I submit an application but it never works—and I’m never given any explanation as to why. Now to save time, I tell agencies that I’m of foreign origin. Some tell me [after rejecting my application] that it’s not their fault, but that of the owners … I have to bring someone along [to viewings] because if I’m accompanied by a Belgian I have more luck. It’s offensive.

While such experiences seem to be common in Brussels, victims of discrimination rarely report them, aware of the difficulty of proving the case. This reluctance stems in part from past negative experiences. Out of all cases brought to trial under Belgium’s discrimination law, three out of four are rejected, a singularly low conviction rate that may well dissuade victims of discrimination from pursuing redress through legal means.

Taken against this backdrop of low conviction in the past, it’s far from clear whether or not the new tests will need have the intended effect in lessening this type of discrimination. They would need to be properly resourced to pose a meaningful threat to misbehaving realtors and, while the policy was adopted in September, testing has apparently not yet officially begun.

In the interim, it may still have some positive effects. The threat of being fined not only makes things harder for real estate agents who are currently discriminating, it also gives agents under pressure to secure a client at any cost a weapon with which to reject requests to discriminate from landlords, who many insist are the real source of the problem. It also sends a message to residents from minority groups that the city takes their welfare seriously. Delivering on that message all the way through the courts, however, will be the key to its being taken seriously.

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