It was fall of 2009 when C. spoke with the Actors Work Program about a different kind of job opportunity. He was in the in-between state, having just finished working in a long-running Broadway show and waiting for his next acting job. Like most actors, C. had taken on all kinds of jobs to pay the bills between acting jobs – from waiting tables to selling merchandise to teaching ballroom dance to elementary school students. But when C. went to the Actors Work Program that day he was told about a different way to get a steady paycheck when not acting: become a tester for the Fair Housing Justice Center’s (FHJC) Acting for Justice program.
“When I became aware of this opportunity, it seemed like something that would be about more than just paying the rent and bills between gigs,” C. reflected. “It was something that aligned with my values and would be about working to make a difference.”
Since 2009, C. has been on dozens of tests to uncover housing discrimination. “I refer to myself as the control group,” C. explained. “The way it is set up is that you are testing in teams. For example, in discrimination based on race tests, there is a tester of color and a white tester. And I am your average white man.”
C. has found the experience of testing fascinating in several ways. Seeing and helping to uncover the pervasiveness of housing discrimination has been, in C.’s words, “eye-opening.” He described one test in which the housing provider was so kind and inviting to him that he thought to himself about the housing provider, “You better be this nice to the next tester who comes in here who might not look like me.” He reflected that this incident allowed him to more fully reflect on the reality of white privilege.
But beyond opening his eyes, being a tester also helped C. further develop as an actor. “As an actor, I am always looking for character observation,” C. described. “Our job as actors is to get inside someone else’s skin. But when you are only in your own social bubble, the opportunity to interact with people from a very different world than your own is somewhat limited. And in meeting with various landlords and housing providers – some of the sweetest and some of the sleaziest people I have ever met – there has definitely been a great opportunity for character observation.”
When asked about why he thought the work of the FHJC was important, C. said the answer was very simple. “Housing rights are human rights,” he said. C. articulated that given the changes that are happening in New York City, which have led to both a scarcity and high demand of housing, it is more important than ever to ensure that fair housing laws are enforced.
This story is part of a series called Acting for Justice Stories, which highlights the experiences of the testers who make up the FHJC’s Acting for Justice testing program. Testers pose as ordinary home seekers in order to determine if housing providers and others are complying with fair housing laws. If you are interested in supporting the Acting for Justice program, consider donating to the FHJC at fairhousingjustice.org/give.