2001-09-15 Grand Haven Tribune Ottawa County seeks more evidence of unfair housing

Ottawa County seeks more evidence of unfair housing
Grand Haven Tribune

County officials are taking a serious look at contributing funds toward opening Lakeshore extension offices of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids, but want to first make sure that a county wide problem of housing discrimination exists.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners Health & Human Services Committee on Thursday reviewed a request for funding form area equality advocacy groups. They want to extend the center’s presence along the lakeshore. Along with a cut in funding to provide previous services in the area, officials from those organizations say they will be able to better investigate and test for inequities in treatment among applicants for housing.

Under the current plan, it would cost $56,620 to pay a part-time staff member of the Fair Housing Center to work out of an office in Holland two days a week and Grand Haven one day a week. But citing only 30 complaints along the lakeshore in at least the past three years, county officials wanted more evidence indicating its need. “I’d like to find out if it’s a real problem here,” Commissioner Joe Haveman said, wondering whether only 10 people called per year because they didn’t know to access the center or that there were only 10 because those were the only people who had complaints.

Those providing the services say that because no official referral service exists, those calls are an indication of a larger problem. Until recently, the center used a state grant to fund investigation along the lakeshore, but those funds so far have been withheld this year. Most of the center’s funds come from Community Development Block Grants, but that money is specific to a government.

The center’s executive director said that it plans to continue investigating complaints along the lakeshore, but it would have to do so with money collected from its annual fund-raiser and pledges from members. Holland is the only municipality in Ottawa County with an ordinance against housing discrimination. The rest of the county falls under state and federal laws.

County Corporate Counsel Greg Rappleye said that the only avenue available to those against whom landlords discriminate is to hire a lawyer and contact the state and federal attorney generals offices. Commissioner Fred VanderLaan questioned whether that would be an option least feasible to those who need it the most.

The requests by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and the Community Action Team of the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism follow results of a recent fair housing study that revealed discriminatory practices in the area. The study showed various levels of discrimination in six of the eight tests conducted to assess impediments to fair housing.

The committee agreed to seek information about the frequency of housing discrimination complaints from the state and from Kent County before moving forward. The issue will be on the committee’s agenda for discussion next month. “I think we all have some studying to do,” Commissioner Joyce Kortman said.