The Fight for Fair Housing Goes On

Earlier this year, the Center joined fair housing advocates across the country in marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.  Unfortunately, what should have been a year of celebrating progress has turned into a year of fighting to protect central provisions of this landmark civil rights law.  It is no exaggeration to say that fair housing is under attack in 2018.

The Fair Housing Act was enacted to do two things: first, to outlaw housing discrimination against individuals, and second, to reverse the effects of decades of discriminatory policies, practices, and institutions that caused extreme racial and economic housing segregation across the country.   The second part of the law has been its least-enforced component over the past fifty years.

However, during the Obama era there were several key administrative and legal decisions that had folks in the fair housing world feeling optimistic.  In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) issued a final rule on “disparate impact,” formalizing its interpretation of the Fair Housing Act as “prohibiting practices with an unjustified discriminatory effect, regardless of whether there was an intent to discriminate.”  In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld this interpretation in its Inclusive Communities decision.  The same year, HUD released its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule to clarify communities’ obligations to promote integration, as required by that long under-enforced second piece of the FHA. Together, these changes represented the largest step forward on fair housing since the original law’s passage. Graphic of quote: "This work is hard, but we keep going." - Betsy Julian, Inclusive Communities Project, in her 2018 Loving Civil Rights Award Keynote Speech

Unfortunately, under the new administration, HUD has apparently decided to mark the Fair Housing Act’s anniversary by working to undo nearly all of this progress. In January, the agency announced that it was suspending communities’ obligation to comply with the AFFH rule for at least two years.  In May, there was a double-whammy when HUD announced first that it was reconsidering the 2013 Disparate Impact rule and second withdrawing the online tool created to help communities analyze segregation and comply with AFFH.  Then, just last week, the agency announced plans to further overhaul and weaken the AFFH rule.  A lawsuit filed against HUD by a coalition of fair housing advocates, which aimed to stop rollback of the AFFH rule, was dismissed by a federal judge late last week when the judge decided the fair housing groups lacked standing to challenge the rule. (For more, read this excellent summary of recent events by CityLab’s Kriston Capps).

Here in Connecticut, one of the most segregated states in the country, we’ve also had some recent setbacks.  In 2017, the legislature voted to weaken the state’s affordable housing statute, C.G.S. 8-30g, which requires municipalities to approve affordable housing proposals if less than 10% of their units are affordable and there are no health or safety issues. About 81% of Connecticut municipalities do not meet this modest threshold. The 2017 change makes it easier for these towns to avoid or put off new development.  “NIMBY”ism continues to thrive in our state – or at least it feels that way if you attend many local zoning board hearings on affordable housing.

 

It’s hard to find a bright spot in all of this, but fair housing advocates across the country are fighting back.  Our movement includes the nation’s top legal minds on fair housing and civil rights law.  From Washington, DC, to Texas, to New York, to communities across the country and here in Connecticut, we are committed to defending the Fair Housing Act in its entirety, and we won’t back down.  We will continue fighting in the courts, in state houses across the country and in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.  While there have been some recent disappointments in the courts, we’ve also seen some victories, like Open Communities Alliance et al vs Carson, where a judge ruled that HUD must implement a rule that will increase housing choice for voucher holders.  Senator Cory Booker and Rep. Maxine Waters have both introduced bills this year to advance fair housing and counter HUD’s regressive actions. More journalists are covering fair housing issues, raising public awareness like never before.

I also remain optimistic that we can move forward at the state and local levels. In 2017, under the leadership of CT Department of Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein, the state formed its first-ever Fair Housing Working Group, a bipartisan group of legislators, housing and land use policy experts, fair housing advocates (including me), and developers.  In just a few short months, we developed a bill, HB 5045, aimed at requiring towns to develop inclusionary zoning to allow for affordable housing development in order to get state funding.  The bill didn’t pass this year, but transformative legislation like this almost never passes on the first or second try.  The Fair Housing Working Group will continue to push for policies that promote equal access to housing and opportunity.

We’re lucky that Connecticut is home to so many incredible fair housing champions: not only the Center (yes, we’re tooting our own horn!), but also legislators like Roland Lemar, public officials like Commissioner Klein, other nonprofit advocates like the Open Communities Alliance, the Connecticut Housing Coalition, the Partnership for Strong Communities, the Fair Housing Association of CT, and local organizations fighting for fair housing in their own communities.  Across the board, Connecticut’s federal elected officials are all fair housing supporters and have championed fair housing in Congress.

 

During times like these, it’s easy to feel powerless.  But working together, we can make Connecticut a place where all people have equal access to housing opportunities, free from discrimination.

Here are some ways you can fight for fair housing:

  • Become a YIMBY! (Yes In My Back Yard!): Pay attention to the housing talk in your town.  Attend zoning hearings on proposed affordable housing and let your town officials – and your neighbors – know that you support a variety of housing types in a variety of neighborhoods, and that you welcome all kinds of people.
  • Know your rights and report housing discrimination if it happens to you.  Often, a single case can reveal systemic issues that are impacting hundreds or even thousands of other people.
  • Do you work for a social service agency or other organization helping clients find housing? Host a fair housing training for staff at your organization.
  • When considering who to vote for in the next election, find out candidates’ positions on fair housing-related issues. Watch this blog and the Partnership for Strong Communities’ website for information on the affordable housing positions of the candidates for governor. The Connecticut Association of Realtors also plans to host a gubernatorial debate where housing will be discussed.
  • When the 2019 state legislative session opens, let your state senator and representatives know that you support affordable housing development in your district. (Find your legislators here.)
  • While our current federal delegation is supportive of fair housing issues, they’re juggling hundreds of different issues at a time. It can’t hurt to write to them to let them know that you support protecting fair housing rights and federal funding for fair housing enforcement and to thank them for their past support.
  • If you live in a city, watch for signs of gentrification which creates high-cost housing at the expense of housing for long-term residents and talk with your local elected officials about your concerns. Fight food deserts by advocating for grocery stores with healthy, affordable food.
  • Recent research reveals that addressing blighted properties and creating small “pocket parks” in densely populated areas with high crime rates creates a sense of community, reduces crime, and encourages community investment. Perhaps you can work with your neighbors to create a pocket park in your neighborhood.
  • Donate to nonprofit advocacy organizations fighting for fair housing.  Of course, we’d love it if you would donate to the Center, or any of the other organizations mentioned.

 

As the great Betsy Julian of Inclusive Communities Project said in her keynote speech at this year’s Loving Award Dinner, “This work is hard, but we keep going.”  Where we live is the foundation of everything else in our lives.  It determines where our children will go to school, the kinds of jobs we can get, even the water we drink and the air we breathe.  With so much at stake, there’s really no choice: we must keep going. Join us.

2017 Annual Report Now Available

Cover of the 2017 Annual Report; woman standing in front of car, smiling with arms crossed.We are proud to share the Center’s 2017 Annual Report.  Thanks to your support, last year we continued our work to provide legal help to thousands of individuals facing housing discrimination and home foreclosure statewide while expanding our work to expose systemic discrimination and unfair practices in Connecticut’s housing markets.

In 2017, we processed nearly 1,200 calls from Connecticut residents reporting housing discrimination, facing home foreclosure, or dealing with related issues.  In this report, you’ll meet just a few of the clients we helped – clients like Rosa, who was denied housing when she was nine months pregnant because a landlord refused to accept her voucher, or Sheila, Don, and Sheri, whose housing providers refused to make reasonable accommodations for their disabilities, or Carolyn and Tim, whose mortgage servicer botched their loan modification and wrongly placed their home into foreclosure.

In addition to assisting individual clients, we continued our work to investigate and expose systemic fair housing and lending issues in Connecticut.  In September, we published the findings of an 18-month investigation into how zoning policies and the marketing and tenant selection policies of affordable housing providers contribute to segregation in the greater Hartford region.  We also concluded a research project on lending discrimination in the state, which found that many people of color continue to experience differential treatment when compared to whites when applying for mortgage loans.

We also continued our statewide education and outreach work to ensure that residents, community organizations, housing professionals, policymakers and others understand their rights and obligations under the fair housing laws.  In 2017, we directly trained nearly 1,000 people on the fair housing laws and distributed over 12,000 copies of our educational brochures, guides, reports, and other materials across the state.

We hope you will take a few minutes to read through our 2017 Annual Report and learn more about our accomplishments last year.   This work would not have been possible without your support.  Thank you.

To stay up-to-date on our work throughout the year, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@ctfairhousing) and sign up for our email list (scroll down to the bottom of this page for the sign-up form!).  Want to support the Center’s work in 2018 and beyond?  Please donate here.

Download the 2017 Annual Report here.

 

 

Courant Editorial Highlights Need for Continued Foreclosure Help in CT

House with a front porchDespite the fact that foreclosures have declined since the height of the housing crisis a decade ago, Connecticut still has the 5th highest number of foreclosures in the nation.

 

 

An editorial in today’s Hartford Courant states:

Foreclosures haven’t ended, sadly. More people will lose their homes without this remarkable service.

The program was set up to “prevent preventable foreclosures,” in the words of Jeff Gentes, a lawyer with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. It helps those who have fallen behind in mortgage payments work out a solution with lenders without having to learn arcane property law, he says. […]

The state provides mediators who guide borrowers through the document-gathering phase and meetings with lenders. […]

One indication of the program’s success is that 73 percent of the borrowers who go through it do end up keeping their homes. Often the mediator helps them negotiate a loan modification so they get a lower interest rate and more time to pay the debt.

During the last year, the Center has been contacted by seniors, people with disabilities, and others who have lived in their homes for years asking for help to stop a foreclosure.  When the Center assures the family that the Foreclosure Mediation Program can help them determine if there is a way to prevent foreclosure or alternatively, to provide a graceful exit there is an almost audible sigh of relief.  Unfortunately, the program is scheduled to end (“sunset”) in mid-2019 unless the legislature extends it or makes it permanent.

Removing the sunset provision and keeping the foreclosure mediation program alive for the thousands of Connecticut homeowners who still need it will help prevent homelessness and save the state money in the long run.

Read the full Courant editorial. 

Learn more about the Center’s work to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

 

Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act

Until the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 – fifty years ago this month – the bill that would become the Fair Housing Act was the most filibustered bill in history.  But with the nation rocked by widespread riots in the wake of the civil rights leader’s murder, Congress spent seven days engaged in political maneuverings that prevented the legislation from being debated, smuggling drafts out of the Capitol to prevent theft or alteration, and lobbying Senators from the South before finally passing the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) on April 11th, 1968.

The Fair Housing Act was designed to do two things.  First, it outlawed discriminatory actions which prevented individuals who were members of a protected class from obtaining housing, mortgages or insurance.  Second, it tasked federal, state, and local governments with promoting integration by requiring them to affirmatively further fair housing in their programs.

Today, there are fewer overt acts of discrimination like those seen when the FHA was passed.  Instead housing discrimination is now cloaked in different dress.  Newspapers no longer separate their advertisements into “Colored” and “White.”  Instead, housing providers refuse to rent to people with housing subsidies, a practice that disproportionately impacts people of color (while this type of discrimination is illegal in Connecticut, the Center still receives hundreds of these complaints each year). Or they impose different requirements and rules on applicants of color compared with White applicants.Fair Housing Act 50th Anniversary logo

Laws no longer force individuals labelled “mentally feeble” or people with physical disabilities to be institutionalized; however, stereotypes and unfounded fears lead to the shuttering of group homes or their confinement to high poverty urban areas.  Affordable housing for people who are elderly, who in Connecticut are 87% White, is typically welcomed, while similar housing for families with children (more than 60% of CT residents under 18 are African-American or Latino) is often characterized as damaging to the “character of the neighborhood” and protested at public hearings.

As a result of these subtle acts of discrimination, there has been little progress on erasing the segregation caused by past overt acts of discrimination by federal, state, and local governments.  While lawsuits have made some progress in desegregating the Hartford area’s schools, little progress has been made in desegregating neighborhoods.  The movement to end unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities has reduced that practice, but efforts to ensure all neighborhoods welcome people with mental health diagnoses are barely off the ground.  Cities and towns still fail to zone for affordable housing, leaving high-poverty areas to absorb and serve the needs of still more people who are poor.  And there is more sympathy for millennials who are priced out of desirable housing markets than families with children who pay upwards of 40% of their income for housing.

Yes, we have made progress since 1968, but we will not have a truly integrated society until all neighborhoods welcome all people.

Join us in marking the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act and recognizing those who continue the fight for fair housing today at our upcoming Loving Civil Rights Award Dinner.

Read more about the long and bumpy road to the passage of the Fair Housing Act and its aftermath.

Learn more about the history of fair housing at the Center’s display this month at the Legislative Office Building.

 

For a closer look at the seven days between MLK’s assassination and the passage of the Fair Housing Act, check out this short documentary from the National Fair Housing Alliance:

 

A version of this post was originally published as a guest post on the Partnership for Strong Communities blog.

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