2004-12-15 Holland Sentinel "Office takes aim at housing bias"

Office takes aim at housing bias
Lakeshore Fair Housing Center now fielding complaints on local discrimination

Area residents who feel they have been discriminated against while trying to buy or rent a home now have a place to turn for help.

The Lakeshore Fair Housing Center, at 665 136th Ave., is open to take complaints from the community and work as a source of information regarding federal fair housing laws.

Gail Harrison, executive director for the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, said the center was developed in response to a mandate during the 2001 Ottawa Area Summit on Racism in Holland.

"Once a community has a fair housing center, it's a strong statement that we are bound by our morals and that we will not stand for discrimination in our community related to unfair housing or otherwise," Harrison said.

Funding for the center came primarily from a Steelcase Foundation grant, which allows for $37,500 during three years with varying levels of matching funding that must be raised by the center.

Harrison said part of the documentation she used to secure the grant came from a survey conducted by the city of Holland in which six out of eight tests showed race discrimination in renting, buying and mortgaging. The prevalence of discriminatory practices in the housing industry, either regionally or locally, also were shown with data from studies by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and Michigan State University.

The primary focus of the center during its inception will be to train volunteers how to run strict tests on the county's housing market, and to better inform residents of the law.

"I don't think that people really fail to understand you cannot discriminate on the basis of race, but one of the caseswe've dealt with was a man who had very limited use of the English language and the renter's response was 'Well, how am I supposed to rent to this man if I have such a difficult time communicating with him.' That's illegal.

"There are also situations in which a person who uses a wheelchair wants to rent a house but needs to install a ramp. As a landlord, you are required to accommodate these changes. You don't have to pay for them, but you have to allow the changes to take place."

Charles Jones, who in the past has worked on the statewide steering committee for implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, has been hired as the center's executive director and will begin working in the LFHC office part time in January. Jones said he is in the process of setting up a multi-tiered voice mail system that will allow callers to leave complaints, information or questions when the office is unoccupied.

"We're going to be calling on HUD in Grand Rapids for some help in investigating this type of discrimination. To this point there has not been any kind of organized presence for this on the Lakeshore as there has been in Grand Rapids," Jones said. "I think the continued growing diversity of the area makes this an essential service here."

After the center gains its footing, Jones said, it likely will extend local services to investigation and enforcement.

Jones said a national study done by HUD showed that 85 percent of unfair practices in housing were evenly distributed among ethnic discrimination, discrimination of people with disabilities and discrimination of people related to their family standing.

"The family standing is a situation where someone is marginalized because they may be a single mother of four children," Jones said. "Often times people don't even fully realize they're being discriminated against."

The Lakeshore Fair Housing Center can be reached at (616) 994-6311.

Contact Patrick Revere at patrick.revere@hollandsentinel.com or (616) 546-4280.