Two recently published housing studies revealed high and continuing discrimination rates against black, Hispanic and disabled home seekers in Chicago and other cities.

This month marks the 38th anniversary of the Federal Fair Housing Act. But minority and disabled home seekers still are often “steered” by real estate agents toward minority neighborhoods or denied housing services outright, according to the studies.

“It is amazing that the fair housing law was enacted in April of 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King,” said Anne Houghtaling, director of enforcement for the National Fair Housing Alliance, which conducted one of the reports. “To have this level of discrimination today is appalling.”

The alliance’s report, which was funded in part by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, studied 12 metropolitan areas, including Chicago, from 2003 and 2005. The group sent white, black and Hispanic testers to randomly selected real estate agents in each test area.

Each agent saw a white tester and either a black or Hispanic tester. The black and Hispanic testers presented more appealing financial qualifications, such as higher incomes, better resources for down payments and the ability to afford more expensive homes.

Regardless of income considerations, agents steered home seekers to neighborhoods based on their race 87 percent of the time, the study reported.

White testers were frequently steered away from minority neighborhoods even after expressing interest in the areas.

More alarming still, according to the report, was the use of school district quality as a proxy for steering.

In one case, an agent in Tarrytown, New York told white testers the local schools with a large Spanish-speaking population, weren’t good. The agent told the Hispanic testers the schools were good.

Houghtaling said in Chicago the results were on par with the rest of the nation. Other cities tested included Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, Dayton, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Birmingham and Mobile, Ala., and Austin, Texas.

“[Chicago] was certainly not any better than the overall average,” she said. “There was one instance where an agent said to a tester, ‘I don’t care if you’re a bigot. If we go to an area and you don’t like it, let me know.'”

As a result of the study, the Fair Housing Alliance has filed a complaint with HUD regarding a RE/MAX realtor in the western suburbs and expects to file more complaints, Houghtaling said.

The study also found several instances where agents offered financial incentives, such as reduced closing costs or lower interest rates, to white testers but not to the minority tester groups. Agents refused appointments or offered limited services to black and Hispanic testers 20 percent of the time.

The findings can be a blow to both home seekers and real estate agents in urban cities, such as Chicago, that have large minority populations.

“I’m upset about it,” said Tracey Taylor, owner of T.L. Taylor Realty in Bronzeville. “But am I surprised? No. We need more testing and we need to educate our practitioners so they’ll be aware of it.”

But racial discrimination is not the only violation of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. HUD’s annual fair housing report, also recently released, documented an 8 percent rise in complaints about discrimination against people with disabilities in fiscal year 2005.

Disability discrimination made up 40 percent of the cases filed with HUD, and it now ranks as the most common complaint.

Last year HUD reported that a third of rental properties in the Chicago area are inaccessible to disabled people.

Taylor, who is on the board of the Chicago Association of Realtors, said discrimination and Fair Housing Act violations are “a hot topic” locally and nationally.

The National Association of Realtors this month is offering special courses and activities to better educate its members about fair housing laws in recognition of Fair Housing Month.

Both studies have gotten the attention of housing advocates and the real estate industry.

“I think the results show that there is a real need to continue activity with education in the real estate industry,” said Houghtaling. “We have also recommended to Congress to allocate more funds to continue this type of investigation and enforcement action.”