Event Attendees Reflect on Progress, Discuss the Long Road Ahead
If every neighborhood is to become a place of opportunity, it's time for fairer housing – to include the LGBTQ community – and stronger enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.
That was the overall message delivered on April 24 at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History during a celebration of the Act's anniversary hosted by the Greater Metropolitan Association of Realtors. The GMAR has more than 8,000 members and is part of the National Association of Realtors.
More than 100 attendees acknowledged the numerous advances in combatting housing discrimination and segregation in the last fifty years, but everyone agreed there is more to be done.
"We have to be vigilant and we have to keep a focus on fair housing. We can't just do it in April of 2018 or April every year. Fair housing is part of what we all do and in order to do that we have to think about all of the decisions we get engaged in as a group as much as we do an individual," said the event's keynote speaker Fred Underwood, director of diversity and inclusion for the NAR.
"As you're a realtor and you're out there working with a buyer and seller and you have a commitment to equal opportunity, you're going to check yourself from time to time and make sure you're providing the best quality service and equal professional service because that's in your DNA as a realtor to do that."
Cracks in the Foundation
The FHA was passed in 1968 to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin. Protections based on a person's sex were added through amendment in 1974; disability and familial status were added in 1988.
Yet communities of color and other marginalized groups continue to be excluded from access to quality and fair housing, homeowners insurance, and mortgage credit, and many violations of the FHA continue, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Housing discrimination and segregation are linked to every major issue affecting individuals and families nationwide, including access to quality housing, health care, education, healthy foods, a clean environment, mainstream credit, and more.
These violations, the NFHA reports, include redlining by lending institutions, lending discrimination against Latinos, real estate steering, social media networks such as Facebook prompting discriminatory housing ads placed by advertisers, discrimination by housing insurance providers, inferior maintenance and marketing of bank-owned foreclosures in communities of color, inaccessible housing for persons with disabilities, and exclusionary zoning policies.
The 2018 Fair Housing Trends Report shows there were 28,843 reported complaints of housing discrimination in 2017. Of these, private fair housing organizations were responsible for addressing 71.3 percent, the lion's share of all housing discrimination complaints nationwide. 57 percent of these complaints involved discrimination on the basis of disability, followed by 19 percent based on racial discrimination and 9 percent based on discrimination against families with kids.
What is more alarming is that the number of complaints is likely way low, according to the report. The NFHA estimates that more than four million cases of housing discrimination occur each year. Most people don't report racial, ethnic or religious housing discrimination. Nor do they report sexual harassment in housing, according to Matthew J. Schneider, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, who provided closing remarks at the event.
"We know there are victims all across this state and some are too scared to come forward and that's causing a serious problem of underreporting, but what's even worse than that is that they don't know that they can come forward … ," he said, pointing to the U.S. Department of Justice as a resource. "We're here for you. You have a voice. We can investigate these cases. You do not have to live with this indignity because the Fair Housing Act is your shield … We want to help."
What About LGBTQ People?
Currently, 22 states, the District of Columbia, and over 200 localities protect sexual orientation and gender identity in their housing discrimination statutes. In Michigan, state law includes all federal protections as well as age, and marital status, but not sexual orientation and gender identity. One important strategy for success would be to amend the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Until then, local non-discrimination ordinances have been established to provide added protection against LGBTQ discrimination in more than 40 municipalities statewide.
The favorable ruling for LGBTQ housing rights handed down in April 2017 sends a big message to states like Michigan. In the Smith v. Avanti case a federal district court judge ruled that a Colorado landlord's refusal to rent a townhouse to a lesbian couple, one of whom is transgender, violates federal housing law. According to Lambda Legal, the Smith's framed their allegations of sex discrimination as claims of "gender stereotyping," which was first recognized as a viable theory under Title VII by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1989 Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case.
There is also a bill, the Fair and Equal Housing Act of 2017, that would add gender identity and sexual orientation to the classes protected from discrimination under the FHA. It was introduced in June 2017 by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Tim Kaine (D-Virginia). The legislation is a companion bill to a similar bipartisan action introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year by Reps. Scott Taylor, (R-Virginia); and Brad Schneider (D-Illinois), which is still in subcommittee.
As steps toward progress are taken, a group of panelists at the event discussed things to be mindful of in the meantime, such as overt and covert examples of discrimination, what members of the community can do if they are a victim of or witness discrimination, and how to treat people more equally.
Ken Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League, pointed to the importance of neutrality policies and proper training.
" … Actually setting a precedent in the policy-making process that it's inclusive. You can have all the policy you want, but proper training of staff is imperative," he said. "Sometimes we explain policies, but we are not actually walking people through the process. Education is key to our liberation. We've got to get back to some of the fundamentals."
Over the years the NAR has developed educational information on diversity and fair housing laws, programs and resources that have helped educate realtors across the country on the importance of inclusive housing practices and the promotion of diverse homeownership. During the year-long commemoration, the NAR said it will examine community fair housing issues and advocate for changes to the FHA to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Harris was joined by Margaret Brown of the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit; Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan; Jerry Pattendorf of Loveland Technologies; and Michelle Oberholtzer of the United Community Housing Coalition.
Part of getting back to the some the fundamentals also means, as White said, not underestimating the power of communication.
" … What social mores are and what the values of your industry are by responding and reacting and conveying to your colleagues, whoever you see who's been exhibiting the discrimination, by saying 'Hey, you know, that's not right or, we don't do that' or whatever way you want to communicate it – it depends on your relationship with the person you see doing the discrimination – or even the victim by saying 'I'm sorry that happened to you. It shouldn't have happened. I'd be happy to work with you instead.' I think that's super powerful and not to be forgotten."
Signs of Discrimination
Some of these comments may be valid, but they may also be used as a pretext to discriminate.
"I rented that apartment right after you called."
"We have a long waiting list."
"Let me show you some homes in an area where in your area I think you would be more comfortable."
"The owner just took the house off the market."
"You might get better terms at another bank."
"There's a problem with your house appraisal."
Anyone who believes they are a victim of discrimination can direct their complaint to the following organizations:
Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Department of Justice
844-380-6178 or [email protected]
Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (Real Estate Licensing Board)
Under state law, discrimination complaints must be filed within 180 days of the date of discrimination. The time limit is 365 days under federal law.
Some Protection for LGBTQ People
Discrimination against an LGBTQ person may be covered by the FHA if it is based on nonconformity with gender stereotypes. For example, if a housing provider refuses to rent to an LGBTQ person because the renter believes the person acts in a manner that does not conform to his or her notion of how a person of a particular sex should act, the person may pursue the matter as a violation of the FHA's prohibition of sex.
In addition, housing providers that receive HUD funding or have loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration, as well as lenders insured by the FHA, are subject to HUD's Equal Access Rule, which requires equal access to HUD programs without regard to a person's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. For more information, visit hud.gov
More information about GMAR can be found online at gmaronline.com. Follow the group on Facebook at facebook.com/GMARonline/.