2003-01-12 Lakeshore Press Proposed center gets fund boost

Proposed center gets fund boost
Lakeshore Press

A two-year old push for funding to open a fair housing center in Ottawa County finally is moving forward, thanks to matching funds promised by a Kent County Foundation. The Steelcase Foundation agreed to award the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance $15,000 the first year and $7,500 the second year to bring fair housing services to Ottawa County.

“We found we needed outside support to help document this as a pressing need,” said Gail Harrison, LEDA executive director. “We believe the documentation will help us engage our local community in supporting these services. “Some people are just not convinced that people here face obstacles to fair housing.”

Momentum to open a fair housing center grew out of the 2001 Ottawa Area Summit on Racism. A Fair Housing Action Team has twice been denied start-up funds from the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners because the majority of commissioners didn’t believe it was need.

Later this month, the board is expected to consider the team’s request for $5,000 to study fair housing practices in the county. The board’s finance committee did not recommend the proposal. Harrison said there is strong support in the area for diversity-training initiatives, but less support for investigating discrimination complaints and enforcing equal opportunity laws.

Many believe that instances of housing discrimination are growing with Ottawa County’s changing demographics. Three studies of the Holland housing market since 1989 have revealed discrimination that is varied and subtle:

· It could be a single mother who is required to pay a larger deposit than her married neighbors.

· It might be an African-American professional whose real estate agent shows her “starter homes” in metropolitan areas, even though she could easily afford a newer house in the suburbs.

· Maybe it’s a family with a lot of children that is denied an opportunity to rent a house that is clearly big enough.

· It may be a family learning English as a second language whose rental application just never rises to the top of the pile.

· It could be a person with a mental or physical disability whose perpetual misfortune is that the advertised apartment was “just rented.”

· Or, it might be the follower of an Eastern religion who suspects no one will rent to him because his nontraditional appearance would not allow him to “fit in” to a conservative neighborhood.

Many members of federally protected classes who are discriminated against never know it, Harrison said. Few could ever prove it without a fair housing investigator. The Grand Rapids Fair Housing Center, established in 1980, has been investigating fair housing complaints in Ottawa and Muskegon counties as time permits; however, the agency announced in December it would not have the resources to handle out-county complaints in 2003.

The Grand Rapids center is part of Michigan consortium of fair housing centers, whose federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds were not renewed for this year. The director of the Grand Rapids Fair Housing Center will be re-applying for HUD funding as an independent entity this spring. The Grand Rapids center also has agreed to join with the Advisory Board of Ottawa County’s Fair Housing office to apply for a HUD grant which would provide $100,000 for three consecutive years.

Of that, the start-up center would receive $85,000 per year and the Grand Rapids Fair Housing Office would receive $15,000 annually for mentoring the new office, Harrison said. Work out of the Ottawa County center may begin by this summer, Harrison said.

Volunteer fair housing testers were trained in Holland last summer. Testers typically work in sets, posing as house hunters with identical jobs and income who are seeking the same type of housing. They compare what they were offered and how they were treated to assess whether discrimination is occurring. The possibility of punishment helps assure equal opportunities for all, Harrison said.

Ottawa County’s Fair Housing Center likely will operate out of donated office space at Crossroad Chapel or the Center for Independent Living in Holland, Harrison said. Part-time hours also may be added in Grand Haven or Spring Lake.

LEDA’s Fair Housing Advisory Board will be seeking donations from home builders, Realtors, municipalities, foundations and others to raise the $15,000 match, Harrison said. She said she is hopeful that all the funding can be in place by April 1, so the action team can refocus its efforts on hiring and training a fair housing coordinator.

Primary focus of the coordinator’s work will be educating landlords, property managers and the public about how to ensure fair housing practices, Harrison said. The coordinator can clarify laws and help resolve problems. “There are many avenues to a resolution,” Harrison said. “Few matters reach litigation, which is always the last resort.”

Organizers intend to establish the fair housing center as a non-profit organization separate from LEDA within a few years.