2003-01-15 Lakeshore Press County OKs money for fair housing initiative

County OK’s money for fair housing initiative
Lakeshore Press

Ottawa County commissioners agreed Tuesday to spend $5,000 on a fair housing initiative, despite objections from some commissioners who questioned its need. The funds will help pay a consultant to organize focus groups of community leaders, bankers, real estate agents, landlords and others in the housing industry to explore how to prevent housing discrimination in Ottawa County.

“It’s to promote dialogue to get people to talk about solutions,” said Commissioner Cindy Visscher of Holland. Not all commissioners believe the problem is significant enough to warrant any county involvement, however. Four of the 11 commissioners voted against the initiative. “We have received no compelling documentation of any problem,” Commissioner Cornelius Vander Kam of Georgetown township said. “And the county doesn’t generally get involved in individual disputes.

“This is not something the county should get involved with,” he said.
I just don’t think it’s our cup of tea.” Vander Kam joined commissioners Joyce Lortman of Park Township, Fred VanderLaan of Hudsonville and Bob Rinck of Tallmadge Township in opposing the funding request. Vander Kam earlier voiced concern that the $5,000 commitment might open the door for private groups, such as the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, to seek more county funds for fair housing issues.

The Alliance recently received a $15,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation to help fund a fair housing center in Ottawa County. The grant came after the county’s Health and Human Services Committee twice rejected the idea of targeting up to $49,000 in county funds at such a project. Commissioners on that committee eventually agreed to forward a compromise proposal to the county board for the $5,000 initiative, which will be organized through the Community Acton Agency.

Board Chairman Dennis Swartout of Grand Haven supported the proposal. “I tend to think this is a small price to pay to professionally solicit input from a variety of sources,” he said. Swarout said the dialogue should be beneficial whether housing discrimination is a real or simply a perceived problem in Ottawa County.

Supporters of the initiative and the fair housing center say the problem is real and pint to a 20014 test conducted by the city of Holland that showed some differential treatment in six of eight instances where a person sought housing. They also say a call line established last year to collect housing discrimination complaints was being used.

Those supporters say one of the biggest obstacles for people who may be victims of discrimination is knowing where and how to file a complaint. In Ottawa County, the city of Holland’s Human Relations office is the place now to get that information. Still, some county commissioners say they need more proof of a housing discrimination problem.

Commissioner Joyce kortman of Park Township, former head of a nonprofit group called Housing Opportunities made Equitable, said she thinks housing discrimination is a much lesser problem than finding affordable housing for people. “We simply do not have enough affordable housing in our community. It’s not a question of fair housing,” she said. “We have just outstanding business people in this area who go out of their way to be fair,” she said. The $5,000 will be used to convene two different focus groups to look at how fair housing practices in Ottawa County can be guaranteed and whether people can donate resources to achieve that goal. The initiative should be completed by June 30.