Fair housing complaints down this year

November 20, 2011
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The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan received 197 new complaints of housing discrimination last year across nine of the 11 classes that are protected by federal, state and local laws. Discrimination in rental ads, and actions against those with children under the age of 18 and persons with physical disabilities were the most frequent complaints; those two classes accounted for 133 of the complaint total.

That has changed this year. With two months left in 2011, FHCWM had only received 99 complaints through October. The center’s executive director, Nancy Haynes, told the Business Journal complaints have fallen because the agency has redirected its efforts to battle housing discrimination. Instead of focusing on Internet and print ads as it has over the past few years, Haynes said her group has directed its attention to more complaint-based work.

“What ended up happening is we had a huge number of cases open,” she said as a result of last year’s focus on ads. FHCWM resolved and closed 171 complaints in 24 cities in eight of the 11 counties it serves. “So at the beginning of this year, we decided to try a little different approach to those cases.”

Haynes said if the center found a discriminating ad this year that was placed by a small mom-and-pop-type landlord — not a corporate management firm — and the ad wasn’t egregious, the center didn’t file an official complaint against the landlord. Rather, the center sent those landlords letters and an information packet that explained the laws covering housing discrimination to let them know what they had done.

“It just made people aware of the potential violation that was very specific to their ad that we saw, and we advised them that it was a potential violation. We attached copies of the federal, state and local laws that pertain to it, as well as a couple of memorandums from HUD that explain it specifically. We asked the people to take down the discriminatory ads or change the discriminatory language, and to respond in writing that they read the attachments, that they understand them, are committed to fair housing, and mail that back to us,” said Haynes.

“It worked pretty well. We probably sent out 50 letters this year and we got a response from 48,” she added.

Prior to this year, Haynes said many of the landlords the center filed against were so upset that they couldn’t hear what FHCWM was trying to tell them. Now, though, Haynes said many of these landlords called after receiving the letter to apologize for what they had inadvertently done and to thank the center for pointing out their mistakes.

“The great thing is, this allowed us to build a relationship with them. Often, the next time they were ready to run an ad, they called and said, ‘How does this sound?’ and we advised them at no charge. So that was a real success story. But it eliminated a huge number of cases. So, to date, we have only 99 complaints filed so far.”

Having a smaller number of complaints has been affirming for Haynes and her staff. “So we do learn. Last year was a rough year with the religion case and everything else,” she said. “We probably erred on the side of over-analyzing and over-evaluating and thinking about efficiencies. The question that we ask every time we can is: Is this the most effective way to further fair housing? It’s not about us winning or losing or anything; it’s about is this the most effective way.”

As for the type of complaints filed, Haynes said they have changed, too. Family status, a class that includes children under 18, has easily led the complaints parade for the past several years, as 106 of 199 filed last year were in that category. But during the most recent quarter of this year, disability topped family status.

Haynes said she could only offer anecdotal evidence for the change. One reason might be that the center has effectively done more cases that have modified homes and apartments to better accommodate disabled persons, and word of mouth of that success has raised awareness of the issue. Another is the population is aging and more residents are becoming disabled.

“In the third quarter, that was the number-one basis for complaints,” she said. “It’s also a national trend that disability status is the number-one basis of complaints. We haven’t seen that here yet, but it’s happening. We’re getting closer to that.”

Haynes said the Department of Housing and Urban Development surprised the center by giving it two grants for its 2012 budget. Normally, FHCWM gets a $325,000 grant to enforce fair housing laws, and it received that one. But HUD also gave the center a second grant worth $125,000 to be used for public education purposes. The center could only apply for one grant in past years, and it chose the one to fund enforcement. But this year, HUD changed its standard and included the second grant. Haynes called the education grant “a really exciting piece” and said it was one FHCWM has always wanted.

“We’ll be able to do a lot of proactive things. People say, ‘Why don’t you offer free landlord training?’ We’ll be able to offer two of those next year at no cost. So no one will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know.’ We also want to take fair housing into the schools.”

Haynes said the center has a book that fourth-graders will use to learn about fair housing, and the staff will speak with teachers and librarians about the reason for the course. Fifth- through eighth-grade students will take part in a role-playing game. “They will learn in this game what it’s like to be a victim of housing discrimination,” she said.

Haynes felt Grand Rapids city commissioners did a good thing by reviving the city’s housing ordinance a few weeks ago. “We didn’t take a formal position because it wasn’t directly related to fair housing. But at the same time, we’re very committed to having quality rental housing available for all people, and I think this will help ensure quality. A lot of the landlords were already meeting those requirements,” she said of the ordinance.

“There will be a fee they’ll now have to pay for single-family homes that they weren’t paying if they owned less than four units. I think there might be a small added cost that might be passed on to the renter. But if you break it out over six years, it will be so minute, and if it ensures the housing quality of the rental properties, I think it’s worth it. It’s money well spent.”

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