The number of complaints about housing discrimination in Connecticut went down last year – a trend not seen in the rest of the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the decrease might not truly reflect what is going on in Connecticut, according to a fair housing advocate.

In 2004, 81 discrimination complaints were filed with HUD in Connecticut. Of those, 18 were settled and eight had monetary settlements totaling $42,730. That is a decrease from 2003, when 102 complaints were filed. That year, 36 of those were settled and 21 had monetary settlements totaling $109,367. There were slightly more complaints in 2002, when 107 complaints were filed and 42 were settled, 16 with monetary settlements that totaled $83,778.

Nationally, the number of complaints has continued to rise. In 2004, HUD and its state partners received 9,187 housing discrimination complaints, a 13 percent increase from the previous year. The agency attributes the increase in complaints to its “aggressive education and outreach to the public regarding housing discrimination.”

But the HUD data doesn’t capture the whole picture, according to Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which serves the entire state and has offices in Hartford and New Haven. The center receives complaints, investigates them and helps those discriminated against get proper recourse.

“I think that the HUD data is very under-representative in regards to what’s going on in the world,” Kemple said.

In fact, the National Fair Housing Alliance recently said the country is experiencing a crisis of housing segregation after conducting a study on the subject. The study showed that racial segregation is still rampant, with 65 percent of white people living in neighborhoods that are exclusively white and 52 percent of black people living in neighborhoods that are primarily black.

The study also showed that steering by real estate agents contributes to segregation. The NFHA study acknowledged that organizations like the National Association of Realtors provide high levels of training regarding the Fair Housing Act, but indicated that some real estate professionals still steer buyers to certain neighborhoods based on race.

“The National Fair Housing Alliance report will put to rest the assumption that economics are driving segregation in this country,” said Shanna L. Smith, NFHA’s president and chief executive officer. “With the thousands of reported complaints of housing discrimination, and the millions that go unreported every year, this nation has a lot to answer for and a lot of work to do.”

Kemple said many of the complaints that come through her agency during a given year are against condominium associations or landlords.

Kemple’s agency was launched in 1994 and gets more than 300 complaints a year. The number of complaints has stayed fairly steady, fluctuating mostly during times of the year when people tend to move the most.

A lot of discrimination in Connecticut happens because of ignorance of the laws, she said. In Connecticut, renters or homebuyers are protected from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, ancestry, religion, children or family status, mental or physical disability, marital status, age (except for minors), sexual orientation and legal source of income, according to the Fair Housing Center. Some people are exempt from the law, like the owners of small, owner-occupied two-family homes.

The basis for complaints that come into the Fair Housing Center reflect those noted by HUD. According to HUD, 46 percent of complaints are based on disability, 23 percent on race, 17 percent on familial status and 18 percent on national origin. Complaints can include more than one basis.

The state also gets a broad range of discrimination complaints, Kemple said.

But the most common is discrimination based on disability. Kemple has seen instances where someone in a wheelchair went to their condo association and asked to build a wheelchair ramp, but was turned down by the association. Or a person in a wheelchair asked for a handicapped parking spot and was denied.

It is also common to see landlords, especially larger landlords, discriminate against people with mental disabilities. There is a lot of misunderstanding and distrust in that area, Kemple said. Many times, a landlord will not allow a renter with mental disabilities any so-called “special treatment,” like having another person on the lease with them.

Many landlords don’t understand fair housing laws, and think that some discrimination is OK, Kemple said. But limiting a person’s housing choices is serious.

“Where someone lives affects every part of their life,” she said. “What discrimination does is take away choice of where people can live.”