Ghent uses volunteers to root out discrimination in housing


Volunteers in Ghent will take to the phones to try to rent property under a variety of different names to determine if property owners are systematically refusing to show rental housing to foreigners

‘A question of private property’

The City of Ghent is launching a volunteer-run investigation into systematic discrimination in the housing rental sector. The checks begin next month, supervised by Ghent University’s sociology working group.

The volunteers will call about properties advertised for rent using a foreign-sounding name. If they are told that the property is already rented, they will call again later using a Flemish-sounding name. If they are told the property is still free, that would be considered discrimination.

The volunteers will also test responses regarding a potential handicap, particularly concerning the visually impaired with guide dogs.

Liesbeth Homans, Flemish minister for housing, is critical of the method. In a note written earlier this year on the private rental market, she calls on the sector to regulate itself. “We asked the sector to present their proposals,” a ministry spokesperson said. “We don’t want to hand down orders from the government. It’s for the landlord to decide who is the best candidate-tenant. This is, after all, a question of private property.”

People who feel they’ve been the victim of discrimination can always file a complaint, the ministry pointed out. The problem with that, according to Koen Van der Bracht of the sociology working group, is that many victims do not realise they have been discriminated against. “They are just told that the property has been rented,” he said. “Filing a complaint is not an efficient way of battling discrimination.”

In cases where the volunteers discover what appears to be discrimination, the landlords will be approached by Unia – formerly known as the Centre for Equal Opportunities and the Fight Against Racism – to try to open a dialogue on the individual or rental agency’s tactics.

Photo courtesy Stad Gent