2004-06-04 Holland Sentinel Grant helps fair housing center

Grant helps fair housing center
Holland Sentinel

When Jorge Gonzalez was a college student searching for an apartment, he didn’t give much thought at first when an apartment manager told him an advertised unit was no longer available. But the Hispanic man learned later form his white girlfriend that there were apartments available at the place he called. In fact, she went to the apartment office where they told her she could lease one. “It must have been my accent,” Gonzalez said.

While that incident occurred in Kent County, Gonzalez said he is aware of others who have had similar experiences of housing discrimination in Ottawa County. That’s why he’s excited that a fair housing center will soon be launched in Ottawa County, thanks in large part to a $15,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation that matches locally raised fund.“I experienced discrimination when I was younger,” said Gonzalez, now a retail loan officer at Macatawa Bank in Holland. “And that’s why I’m highly committed to this.”

The Lakeshore Fair Housing Center has been a goal of Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance Executive Director Gail Harrison for the past three years. “I am extremely excited,” Harrison said. “It’s been a long, difficult process.” Initially the Alliance sought matching funds from local government units, but the only one willing to pony up was the city of Holland, and it didn’t want to be the only government entity to provide money.

“I agreed with and respected (the city’s) decision.” Harrison said. “I also agree that there are other areas that need to look at fair housing issues.” The county was approached, but declined “The County was approached and it was not convinced there was a problem.” She said. That was despite the county funding a 2003 study that concluded that “discrimination was likely,” and several tests by Holland city officials. In those tests, a white couple and a minority couple were sent to the same lender or landlord to see what happened. The city found that in six out of eight targets visited, there “were varying levels of discrimination.” Harrison said.

Harrison said the center which initially will be located at Crossroad Chapel at 12th Street and Lincoln Avenue will do more than deal with racial discrimination. In fact, she believes the most common victims of housing discrimination in Ottawa County are single parents with children, unmarried households and the disabled. “The key to what we want to do is in education,” Harrison said.

She said the center will not only educate renters and home buyers about their rights when looking for housing, but also make sure landlords, mortgage lender and real estate agents know what the law is, she said. While blatant discrimination occurs, it is rare said Kate Gutierrez, a Holland resident who is an assistant vice president at Community Shores Bank in Muskegon. “It can be very subtle,” Gutierrez said. “It comes down to how you treat people when they come in to see a loan officer.”

People in parts of Ottawa County that don’t have many minorities may think it’s not an issue, said Al Serrano, head of the city of Holland’s human relations office. “When it comes to those issues, there really aren’t any boundaries between government units,” Serrano said.

To get funding for the fair housing center, the alliance needed to come up with $15,000 to match a grant from the Steelcase Foundation. Most of the money came from institutions that are normally on the receiving end of fair housing complaints-banks, mortgage lenders and real estate agents.