2001-11-09 Lakeshore Press Little chance county will fund any fair housing offices

Little chance county will fund any fair housing offices
Lakeshore Press

Backers of a plan to establish Grand Haven and Holland Offices to investigate fair housing complaints may not get any funding from Ottawa County. Ottawa County commissioners on the health and human services committee said Thursday they aren’t convinced the county needs more protection against housing discrimination.

Commissioners last month began discussing the possibility of helping fund branch offices of the Fair Housing center of Greater Grand Rapids. The plan is being promoted by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and the Fair Housing Action Team of the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism. A fair housing study earlier this year in Holland found evidence of racial bias in four of eight test cases.

Thursday, most commissioners on the committee said they were satisfied with existing resources available to county residents if they need to file a fair housing complaint. They also argued that local real estate agents and many loan officers at banks have taken courses to learn how to avoid discrimination. Residents can file complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

A new state law also requires that agencies that receive Community Development Block Grants for emergency services, such as Good Samaritan Ministries and The Salvation Army, adopt fair housing policies and track complaints forwarded through their offices. Those agencies will make referrals to the state Department of Civil Rights.

“I don’t see where we don’t have the tools in place now,” Commissioner Joe Haveman of Holland said. “If you’re in the housing market, you’re hypersensitive about the issue. The penalties are so stiff; you would have to be an idiot to violate (fair housing laws).” Commissioner Fred VanderLaan of Hudsonville agreed. “To set up something just for this, I just don’t see the need,” he said. “We have a system in place. It’s not perfect, but I don’t think it’s busted to the point we3 need to throw money at it.”

Ottawa County Corporate Counsel Greg Rappleye said the Department of Civil Rights had no record of any past legal actions pursued out of a fair housing complaint in Ottawa County. Advocates of the two branch offices, which would cost about $57,000, say the data is deceptive because the Department of Civil Rights is short-staffed and attempts to mediate most complaints.

Al Serrano, human relations coordinator for the city of Holland, said most complaints are settled without being placed on record. He said the area needs a fair housing office to help educate the public about discrimination. “Most people don’t know they have been discriminated against or treated differently,” he said. Serrano said one of the primary benefits of a fair housing office would be to conduct testing of various loan institutions and real estate companies.

The push to locate the fair housing branch offices in Ottawa County also stemmed from information that the Fair Housing Center of greater Grand Rapids will no longer be able to investigate complaints in Ottawa County because of budget constraints.

Gail Harrison of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance said simply having agencies make referrals to the Department of Civil Rights will not be effective. “There won’t be any effective enforcement,” she said.

Commissioners on Thursday agreed to review the fair housing issue again in six months and look at any data collected by nonprofit agencies that track discrimination complaints.