2001-09-14 Lakeshore Press County wants proof to back fair housing offices request

County wants proof to back fair housing offices request
Lakeshore Press

Ottawa County commissioners say they want more information about the extent of housing discrimination in the county before they target funds to combat the problem. “I’d like to find out if it’s a real problem here,” Commissioner Joe Haveman of Holland said.

Haveman and other members of the county’s health and human services committee have been asked to look at contributing funds to help bring branch offices of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids to Holland and Grand Haven. Supporters of the effort say the offices are needed, especially after a fair housing study earlier this year found evidence of racial bias in four of eight test cases in Holland. Real estate and loan agents were among those cited for being unfair.

The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and the Fair Housing Action Team of the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism are backing a plan to spend about $57,000 to establish branch offices in the two cities, and staff the Holland location two days a week and the Grand Haven office one day per week. The part-time staff person hired for the offices would investigate complaints of discrimination and educate the public about their rights under fair housing laws and real estate agents and mortgage lenders about their obligations.

The Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids periodically investigates complaints in Ottawa County-about 30 during the past three years-but doesn’t have enough funding to maintain that service, according to Cathy Simon, head of the Ottawa County Works agency. Fair housing agencies across Michigan have not received any funds this year form a $600,000 Federal Housing Initiative grant that previously helped support five such centers.

Although Ottawa County cannot award a grant to the Fair Housing Center, it can contract with the center to provide services. County Commissioner Cindy Visscher of Holland said she wants to explore ways to make sure fair housing complaints are investigated. “I just see it as something that was here before and now, won’t be,” she said.

Haveman said he wants to see data, possibly from the state Civil Rights Department or Attorney General’s Office, on how many fair housing complaints are filed in Ottawa County each year and whether resources now exist to handle those complaints. “I don’t know if I agree that (residents) don’t have the protection now,” he said Haveman, former head of the Holland Home Builders Association, said he believes local real estate agents and lenders already take fair housing laws very seriously.

Ottawa County Corporate Counsel Greg Rappleye said Michigan residents with complaints of housing discrimination can seek help through private attorneys or through the state Attorney’s General’s Office. Fair housing laws now exist under state and federal law. But advocates of the proposal to put fair housing offices in Holland and Grand Haven say most residents simply do not know how to go about filing their own complaints and do not have the money for an attorney.

Members of the health and human services committee are expected to discuss the issue again next month.