2003-01-07 Holland Sentinel "Group to target housing bias"

Group to target housing bias
Diversity organization will create fair housing team with grant money
The Holland Sentinel

The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance will launch a fair housing action team with seed money granted by the Steelcase Foundation.

The Grand Rapids-based foundation recently awarded $15,000 to the diversity group, said Gail Harrison, alliance executive director.

"It's a beginning, and it's a strong beginning," Harrison said of the money to start the action team.

The matching funds grant will help establish a housing center to handle discrimination complaints in all aspects of the housing market from lending to renting and purchasing a residence.

"National studies show impediments to fair housing. We believe, at a grass roots level, we have some problems existing here too," Harrison said.

Studies in the city of Holland back that up.

The city of Holland commissioned a fair housing study in 2001 and the results matched those of similar studies. Three times since 1989, housing studies have shown evidence of discrimination in the Holland residential market.

In 2001, four out of eight tests resulted in a significant difference in treatment shown to a white applicant compared to a black applicant.A study in 1989 showed that in 49 percent of 37 test situations, white renters were given favorable treatment over Hispanic renters in Holland. In 1994, a study showed patterns of discrimination against minorities in 46 percent of 22 tests.

The issue has grown in importance over the last decade as minority populations more than doubled in Ottawa County.

Harrison said the overall problem is not just about race. There are cases of housing discrimination involving religion, gender and other factors, she said.

As an advocate for people with disabilities, Bob Bacik of the Lakeshore Center for Independent Living answers a lot of calls about fair housing, landlords and tenants rights.

He answers them when he can and if he can't help, Bacik calls the Fair Housing Center in Grand Rapids or the federal Housing and Urban Development office.

He believes the need for a fair housing center in Ottawa County is great, and that the issue revolves around more than race lines.

"It also has to do with disabilities, whether they are physical or mental disabilities like severe depression or along those lines," Bacik said.

"We had a case of a woman with severe depression for whom it was necessary to live with cats. The apartment she was applying to didn't allow pets so she couldn't rent it. If she was blind she could have had a dog, but they didn't understand that."

After explaining that it was imperative for the woman to live with the cats, the apartment management allowed her to have them, Bacik said.

Advocates have worked for years to establish fair housing services for the area, and Harrison is overjoyed by the awarding of the grant.

"It's been in the works for the last two years," she said, "It's one of many accomplishments."

The origin of the grant is in the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, begun two years ago and sponsored by the alliance. Harrison said a team organized at the first summit in 2001 with an plan to establish a fair housing center in Ottawa County.

Although other funding requests were shot down, securing the Steelcase Foundation grant will be one of several progress reports delivered at the third summit, set for Feb. 11.

Twice in two years Ottawa County commissioners have rejected requests of $20,000 or more for funding a fair housing program, with some officials saying they weren't convinced that a problem exits here.

The county's Health and Human Services Committee last month recommended spending $5,000 to bring community leaders and housing professionals together to discuss possible discrimination in the county.

A fair housing center will provide education, investigation and enforcement activities, and afford protection to all residents seeking equal access to neighborhoods, as guaranteed under current state and federal law.

A telephone hotline has been established to monitor and refer cases of possible discrimination at (616) 546-3196.