County give thumbs-down to Fair Housing offices
Ottawa County officials won’t contribute funds toward opening extension offices of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids, saying that there isn’t enough documentation that a countywide problem with housing discrimination exists.
Members of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday said that they will revisit the proposal from area equality advocacy groups in six months. That’s when documentation form community agencies compiled by the state is anticipated to become available.
Under new state guidelines presented by Cathy Simons, director of the Ottawa County Community Action Agency, agencies that receive Community Development Block Grant money from the state will be required to log fair housing activity and report it to the state. Local agencies that have received those funds include the Community Action House, Center for Women in Transition and Good Samaritan Ministries.
The committee based its decision on the fact that the Fair Housing Center in Grand Rapids reported 30 Complaints over the past three years. County attorney Greg Rappeleye reported that there are no active housing discrimination cases under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Civil Rights commission and the Department of Civil Rights.
The act defines and prohibits discrimination in real estate and housing. “It either means we don’t have a problem or we have a situation that’s so bad that there’s no way to remedy it,” Holland Commissioner Cindy Visscher said. Holland Commissioner Joe Haveman said that with people like city of Holland community Human Relations Coordinator Al Serrano available to handle the few documented cases, the resources are already available. He said that with strict laws and harsh penalties against housing discrimination, bankers and those dealing in real estate already try to prudently follow the law.“Let’s accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and there will always be some sort of discrimination,” Haveman said. “I think the tools are in place.”
Hudsonville Commission Fred Vander Laan said that it might take a few telephone calls, but the resources can be located. “If you need answers, you can find them,” he said. The issue arose in September when representatives from area equality advocacy groups requested funding for the Fair Housing Center extension offices along the lakeshore. They proposed a plan that would cost 56,620 to pay a part-time staff member of the center to work out of an office in Holland two days a week and Grand Haven one day a week.
Until recently, the center used a state grant to fund investigations 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 has 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 form members.
Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, said that the information presented to the county committee was inaccurate and that she had hoped she would able to bring in a local expert on the subject to make a presentation before the committee decide not to provide funding. Serrano said that people might not know whether they’re being discriminated against if the real estate agent or banker services them with a smile, that it might require an expert to go with them for such meetings to determine whether discrimination is taking place.
Park Township commissioner Joyce Lortman said that if there is a problem, it might lie in not having enough affordable housing in Ottawa County. “Affordable housing in this community is an issue,” Kortman said.