2001-08-09 Holland Sentinel Housing practices beckon city help

Housing practices beckon city help
Holland Sentinel

An area group wants the city of Holland to help pay for the opening of a branch of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids on the lakeshore. The invitation came as the city council reviewed Wednesday night the results of recent fair housing tests that reveal discriminatory practices.

Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, asked for the council’s support. “We would like to invite the city to collaborate to bring the fair housing center (to Holland),” she said, adding that it will cost $57,000 per year for the center to staff an office two days a week in Holland and one day a week in Grand Haven. She asked the city for a three-year commitment. No action was taken Wednesday.

The Community Action Team of the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism has been working to bring the center to Holland. On Monday afternoon, a group of African-American leaders committed themselves to working to bring the center to town. The initial response from city officials was to wonder if area organizations would be involved in funding the center.

“Why is this not being approached on a county level?” City Manager Soren Wolff asked. “This issue, in my opinion, ought to be a countywide issue. This issue is much bigger than the city of Holland.” Harrison said Holland was the first government to be approached and more including county agencies will be asked to join the effort.

The report, commissioned by the Holland’s Human Relations Commission and conducted by Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids, showed two of eight cases where white applicants and black applicants were treated equally. Since the results of the tests were released last month, Alberto Serrano, the city’s community human relations coordinator, has talked with the companies that were tested.

“When I did have the face-to-face meetings with the individual companies, they were all very anxious to review their systems internally,” he said. “For some of them it was a real revelation that they have weaknesses they need to attend to.” During those meetings, Serrano pushed the companies to test themselves, a concept Councilman Mark DeRoo, who serves on the Human Relations Commission, seconded.“Companies need to be diligent to do those self audits, and coupled with that provide training,” he said.

It might be time for the city to make another mass mailing to companies in the housing business, educating them about fair housing practices, Wolff said. “I think we have a responsibility as a city to raise their awareness,” he explained. For Councilman Craig Rich, the problem lies not with institutions but with each employee. “I think it’s a people problem,” Rich said.

City officials also said enforcement of fair housing laws is need. “I think we need to get to the point where there is effective enforcement,” Serrano said. “There comes a time where they (companies) have to step up to the plate … it may take some prosecution. People need to know this is serious business.”That will include more testing by the city, council members said. “There will be continued testing,” de Roo said. Mayor Al McGeehan agreed. “I would hope we would do this on a much more regular basis,” he said.

Before talking Wednesday about the results, Serrano emphasized that not enough tests were done to establish patterns of discrimination. “This is in no way a study,” Serrano said. “It’s not comprehensive enough … These were monitoring tests … to what extent were (the companies) practicing fair housing practices. We can’t make sweeping judgments. “One test is enough to raise red flags … but certainly not enough to begin legal prosecution or accuse anyone of discrimination.”

Tests included applying for loans for the purchase of houses, asking about the availability and rate for rental apartments and seeking listings of houses for sale.