Real estate professionals welcome Fair Housing Center
BY MYRON KUKLA
Grand Rapids Press
Recent U.S. Government commercials on the radio and television depict a Hispanic, a Pakistani and a guy named Graham Wellington calling to rent the same apartment.
The first two are told the apartment already is rented while Graham is invited to come tour the still available apartment.
The commercials are being broadcast to remind people that discrimination in renting and selling housing is illegal under the U.S. Fair Housing Act.
Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, said the commercial accurately depicts the reality the Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans often face when searching for housing in Ottawa County.
“A test by the Grand Rapids Fair Housing Center found eight violations of Fair Housing in the Holland area by real estate sales personnel and staff in local lending institutions,” Harrison said of the 2002 Holland city-sponsored evaluation.
Since the study was conducted, LEDA has worked for two years to create a Lakeshore Fair Housing Center, a goal that became a reality this month.
“Complaints of discrimination have continued to come in from across Ottawa County over the past two years, showing a need for the Lakeshore Fair Housing Center and the need to educate people about what constitutes housing discrimination, as well as help people who have been discriminated against,” Harrison said.
The Lakeshore Fair Housing Center is open for business in the Macatawa Resource Center in Holland Township.
The center has received $15,000 in funding from the Steelcase Foundation, matching community donations and grants of $7,500 from the city of Holland.
Newly appointed LFHC Executive Director Charles “Chuck” Jones said the center’s mission for the first year will focus on education and public awareness on housing discrimination.
“Housing is fundamental to the quality of life for everyone,” said Jones, a retired Lutheran minister who most recently was director of Health and Human Services for a large metropolitan community in Illinois.
“People have a right to choose where they want to live, what school district they want to educate their children, and access to the quality of life guaranteed all Americans,” Jones said.
Harrison points out the center is not just there for minoritity individuals, but anyone who feels they may have been discriminated against.
“The law protects against discrimination for people who might be denied housing for marriage status (non-married couples), color and native origin, disabilities, gender and family status, as being denied an apartment rental because the number of children in a family,” she said.
While the center initially will focus on education, Harrison said the organization also will conduct tests for housing discrimination and also offer free or contingency-fee legal services.
“If there is an occurrence of blatant and repetitious discrimination by an individual who is knowledgeable of their actions, then legal action may be the only recourse,” she said.
Dale Zahn, chief executive officer of the West Michigan Lakeshore Association of Realtors, which represents more than 1,000 real estate professionals, said his organization is fully behind the new Fair Housing Center.
“The association has been at the table with the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance on the Fair Housing Center and has contributed to help creating it,” Zahn said. “We absolutely endorse it.”
Knowledge of the fair housing rules is part of ongoing training for every Michigan Realtor, Zahn said, noting the association provides Fair Housing training for every new member and also has significant fines and sanctions against real estate agents who break the law. Those include fines up to $5,000, probation and expulsion from the association.
“We believe in fair housing practices and view the Fair Housing Center as a good addition to the community,” Zahn said.