2002-12-18 Lakeshore Press Housing bias issue splits panel

Housing bias issue splits panel
Lakeshore Press

The Rev. Wayne Coleman is convinced Ottawa County has its share of housing discrimination.

As a black pastor and director of a Holland outreach center aimed at helping struggling families become self-sufficient, he has heard complaints from minorities who believe they were treated unfairly in their search for housing.

That is why he does not understand the reluctance of some Ottawa County commissioners to help fund ways to battle housing discrimination.

“I think the county is in denial here,” said Coleman, head of the Core City Christian Community Development Association. “I think they should be involved.”

Coleman figures a proposed $5,000 grant from the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners to study housing discrimination and determine the extent of the problem would be a step in the right direction.

Some county commissioners disagree. On Tuesday, they argued against any county money going to such a project. They say solutions to whatever discrimination exists should be funding through real estate agents, landlords, lenders and others.

Commissioners on the county’s Finance Committee electe4d not to decide the issue Tuesday and will let the full county board look at the proposed grant next month.

“I think this is a bad idea,” Commissioner Cornelius VanderKam of Gerogetown Township said. “I just don’t think the county should be involved in housing solutions … There are enough laws around the check this sort of (discrimination).”

VanderKam was mostly worried that giving a grant could leave the county on the hook to target more funds at the issue in the future. County officials last year rejected a request from a private group, called the Fair Housing Initiative Community Action Team, to fund the $49,000 start up cost of fair housing centers in Grand Haven and Holland.

“If you would approve $5,000 here, it’s going to have a life of its own. It’s going to come back,” VanderKam said. “I think you’re just opening the flood gates for unwarranted assistance.”

But Commissioner Dale Mohr, also of Georgetown Township, said he supports doing something to find out the level of housing discrimination in Ottawa County.

“If you don’t, that question is still hanging out there. Maybe it does exist and, if it does, we may need to develop a strategy to address it,” he said.

The impetus behind the $5,000 request really began in August of 1002, when the Fair Housing Initiative Community Action Team, created at a Summit on Racism in Holland, crafted a plan to seek funds from area governments for the two fair housing centers. The team formed its strategy, in part, based on the result of eight fair housing tests in Holland that showed some real estate agents and bank load officers discriminated against black customers.

Critics of spending county money on fair housing issues content that existing federal and state laws are sufficient for the public. Complains can be filed with the state Department of Civil rights for investigation.

Dale Zahn, CEO of the West Michigan Lakeshore Association of Realtors, said his group has not take a position on whether the county needs a fair housing center.

He said the association, however, supports non-discrimination and equal opportunity on housing issue and supports the enforcement of fair housing rules.

The West Michigan Lakeshore Association of Realtors contributed $1,000 to the Summit on Racism. “Our association has not only stood up, but also put its money where its mouth is,” said Zahn, who also is a part of the Fair Housing Initiative Community Action Team.

Mark Kornelis, co-chair of the team, said he believes most real estate agents and bankers understand fair housing laws, but he does not think the public necessarily knows what is illegal and where to file a complaint.

Kornelis said the $5,000 study would create “focus” groups of real estate agents, developers, government leaders, lenders and others who would share ideas on how to create an atmosphere of non-discrimination.

He does not see a problem with devoting county funds to the project, especially since the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids relies on funds from governments, including Kent County.