2003-07-03 Holland Sentinel Study-Education key to housing equity

Study-Education key to housing equity
Holland Sentinel

Lower-income renters, minorities and first-time homebuyers without a lot of money in their pockets are the most likely to run into housing discrimination in Ottawa County, according to a 50-person task force charged with researching housing practices.

That same focus group, however, felt that a solution to the unfair housing problem is as easy as teaching lenders, renters and property owners how to detect discrimination and how to avoid the practice.

“A lot of people on both sides might not even be aware of fair housing regulations and don’t realize what’s going on,” consultant Kevin Woods told the Ottawa County Commission’s Health and Human Services Commission Wednesday. “What we found through research is that most of the discrimination occurs in Holland and Grand Haven, and among property owners who own a very few properties.”

Woods told commissioners that his company’s research found housing discrimination is most likely to occur among Hispanics, single parents and unmarried adults in rental units.

The research, which was conducted though a series of focus groups, was based not on surveys or tests, but on the experience and knowledge of the people interviewed. In that light, Woods said, the information gathered is open to interpretation.

The city of Holland two years ago commissioned a test in which white and minority testers presented equal credentials in an attempt to get home loans.

“This was a research tool. It wasn’t quantitative,” he said. “We don’t know exactly how many cases exist, we just know that it exists.”

One major problem the groups reported was predatory lending, in which certain lenders charge extremely high fees to what Woods called “marginal borrowers” – those with less than perfect credit or little cash.

Woods said the market is being saturated with new lenders competing for “sub-prime” borrowers that are not regulated as strictly as banks.

“We all get the e-mails telling us we can get a mortgage for next to nothing,” he said.

Another problem, Woods said, is the language barrier presented by the large number of residents who speak poor or no English. One lender based in Holland told Woods that he often has to speak to prospective borrowers or renters through their children.

“There may be miscommunications,” he said, “which leads to problems.”

The key to dealing with all the problems, Woods said, is to education everyone involved in the home-buying process about unfair housing, how to notice it and how to avoid perpetrating it.

Dale Zahn, CEO of the West Michigan Lakeshore Associations of Realtors, said his organization does its best to teach real estate agents about fair housing. He said he hears a variety of opinions on the issue from his members.

“Some said, ‘What’s the big deal?’ about the problem, and others have found issues with it. It’s something in our industry that should be addressed so it doesn’t become a problem.”