Housing discrimination grievances rise

November 14, 2008
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The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan recently learned that it was awarded a three-year, $824,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, by far the largest grant in the 29-year history of the nonprofit.

The money will be doled out in three annual installments of $274,000 beginning next year, which means the agency can extend and fund its long-term outlook past 2010, the last year of its current strategic plan.

“So much of what we do, because of the nature of our funding, is responding to a crisis, and now we’ll actually be able to really put some thought into proactively and systemically attacking housing discrimination,” said Nancy Haynes, executive director of the center.

A good portion of that attack plan involves participation from associations in the housing industry, such as area Realtors, property managers and home builders. After having to exist from year-to-year, Haynes said these organizations can now count on the agency being able to battle housing discrimination for at least the next three years.

“So it’s really a wonderful opportunity for us to form some long-term projects, commitments and collaborations,” she said.

“There were years that we didn’t receive funding, and we’re the most segregated state in the country.”

Haynes said Michigan’s unflattering top-of-the-heap segregation standing is tilted a bit because of Detroit’s racial demographics. But she added that taking a close look at where minorities live in areas around Muskegon and Grand Rapids reveals plenty of segregated neighborhoods.

It would follow then that complaints regarding housing discrimination would either remain steady or rise, and for the past four years, those allegations have risen steadily, going from 139 in 2004 to 154 in 2007.

Almost all of the complaints filed last year — 91 percent — involved renting; only 2 percent were over mortgages and just 6 percent involved a sales transaction. Thirty-two percent of the accusations were based on an individual’s family status, while 29 percent cited race as a reason. (See box below.)

But not all of the complaints come from potential renters or homebuyers.

“Twenty-five percent of our cases are coming from people in the housing industry who refer a case to us when they have a client or they see something. If you’re a Realtor and you have a client who says, ‘Don’t sell my house to an African American,’ you can call us and you don’t have to give us your name,” said Haynes.

“Industry referrals are a key for us because those people see (discrimination) patterns and trends.”

Another increase in complaints is certain this year. Haynes said the grievances the center has received in 2008 already top the total from last year, with nearly two full months to go in the year.

“This year, so far in 2008, we are at a record level of complaints,” she said.

“But the hard part about this is, does that mean there is more discrimination or does that mean that we’re doing a much better job of building awareness? I hesitate just to say that we have an increase in the amount of housing discrimination. What I think is happening is more people know about their rights and the fact that they have a means to exercise those rights and a partner to pursue justice. And we have much more visibility now.”

The center set a record last year in achieving justice by finding evidence to support claims in 40 percent of the discrimination grievances that were filed. Haynes said in a typical year these investigations normally confirm about a third of the allegations that are made.

“This is a big jump for us,” she said.

At the same time, however, a new challenge coming from online classified advertising has surfaced for the center. Web sites, such as Craig’s List and Rent GR.com, aren’t regulated by the Communications Decency Act like newspapers and magazines are when it comes to the content of for-rent and for-sale ads.

“People who would never say something out loud like ‘no kids’ don’t even think twice about putting it in their Internet ad, and that is still a violation of the Fair Housing Act,” said Haynes.

“We’re monitoring that now because in the Craig’s List case, the court said that fair housing centers have to bear the burden of going after each one of those discriminatory ads. Because of the Communications Decency Act, Craig’s List has no liability. But anyone who posts a discriminatory ad does have liability.”

The online ads, along with a complicated HUD definition, are why “family status” took over the top spot on the center’s list of reasons about why a grievance was filed last year. Race, the perennial leader, fell to second place. Haynes said those who post such ads just don’t know the law; her advice to them is to describe the property and not mention the type of buyer or renter they’re looking for. In other words, leave out the “no kids” or “under 40.”

“Then they won’t run afoul of the fair housing law.”

Haynes had nothing but praise for U.S. Congressmen Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, and Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland. She indicated both broke with their party’s traditional position in the effort to make sure the Fair Housing Center got the HUD grant.

“Often fair housing and civil rights in Washington, D.C., is a partisan issue. Congressman Ehlers and Congressman Hoekstra really were very courageous in the fact that they were the first Republicans to ask for increased funding for fair housing. They saw that there wasn’t enough funding. It was only at $19 million for the whole country, and there are about 100 fair housing centers like ours across the nation,” she said.

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