Conference explores discrimination in housing maintenance, ads

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

There is a strong and unbreakable bond between the pursuit of fair housing and the legal profession.

Not only is the justification for entities such as the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan (FHCWM) found strictly in the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 (and the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act), but also, often, progress in the field is made through litigation. Add to that the fluctuations in housing-related policy, and you have a situation where legal expertise is an absolute necessity.

That is no doubt why the presence of the legal profession was so evident at Wednesday’s Fair Housing Luncheon and Workshop, “Finding the Way to Fair Housing.”
District Court Judge Benjamin Logan, a long-time board member of FHCWM, played a role in the luncheon program. Cooley Law School and Miller Johnson were bronze sponsors of the workshop and luncheon, and Miller Canfield is a “Friend of Fair Housing.” Nancy Haynes, FHCWM Executive Director, is a lawyer. The keynote speaker, James Perry of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC), is also an attorney.

Perhaps most in evidence were two attorneys from Relman, Dane and Colfax — a firm Perry called “probably the best in the country on fair housing issues.” Relman, Dane attorney Michael Allen anchored a session on accessibility in housing, increasingly critical as the population ages.

Partner Steve Dane participated on a panel called “Overcoming Obstacles to Developing and Purchasing Homes,” discussing lawsuits brought by the City of Baltimore and the City of Memphis against Wells Fargo.

Dane has participated in the FHCWM workshops before. His 2008 presentation, detailed in the May 21 edition of the Grand Rapids Legal News, was a highly informative review of a large number of fair housing cases around the country. “Yes, for some reason Nancy keeps asking me back,” Dane commented with a smile.

It is clear why that might occur, since Dane’s knowledge of the law is comprehensive and his success in litigation has been impressive.

Baltimore and Memphis are suing Wells Fargo because they are in possession of statistical evidence that Wells Fargo steered blacks disproportionately to subprime mortgages. In later discussion, Dane said that the statistics showed most financial institutions’ lending was evenly distributed between demographic segments, but Wells Fargo was “way off the charts.”

In considering those circumstances to be a fair housing issue, organizers of the conference and their partners demonstrate that they are on the cutting edge of exploring what prevents people from equitable housing choice.

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), on whose board both Nancy Haynes and James Perry serve, is just such a forward-thinking organization.

NFHA Project Coordinator Shanti Abedin served on the same panel and talked about maintenance of foreclosed and abandoned properties, particularly those currently owned by lenders (called REOs, or “Real Estate Owned”).

Research undertaken by NFHA indicates that there are major differences in the way such properties are maintained in mostly-white neighborhoods versus neighborhoods where residents are mostly people of color.

The NFHA considers this a clear violation of the Federal statute. Noting that HUD (Housing and Urban Development) regulations interpret the Fair Housing Act as making it unlawful to “restrict or attempt to restrict the choices of a person by word or conduct...so as to perpetuate segregated housing patterns, or to discourage or obstruct  choices...”, NFHA concludes: “If the poor maintenance of an REO property in an African-American or Latino neighborhood makes it difficult for a potential purchaser to obtain a mortgage loan for the property, the poor maintenance has made the housing ‘unavailable’ within the meaning of the Act.”

Abedin’s presentation included slides which showed an appalling lack of upkeep on some properties in black neighborhoods. Showing before and after photos of one particularly poorly-maintained property, she commented, “This property is not going to recover.”

Though NFHA decided not to pursue legal action in Grand Rapids, they did investigate the area. The pattern was very similar here, according to Abedin.

Their report, “The Banks are Back, Our Neighborhoods are Not” is available at www.nationalfairhousing.org.

Panel member Reatha Anderson, who is Director of Planning and Community for the City of Muskegon Heights, said she was delighted to have  the threat of Fair Housing violations as a tool to force better maintenance of REO properties. She said the City of Muskegon Heights, which has a high concentration of African-American residents, constantly struggles with blighted properties that ruin neighborhoods and make housing unappealing in the market.

Anderson recommended that fair housing advocates publicize such a tool through the Michigan Municipal League and work with others on policy.

Panelist Dave Allen, who heads up the Kent County Land Bank, seconded that, saying, whether people are aware of it or not, policy drives so much of what happens in the housing market. He referred people to the website of the Center for Community Progress, www.communityprogress.net,  where land bank guru Dan Kildee suggests, for example, that requiring payment of all delinquent taxes and liens before a property transfer can be completed would encourage legitimate buyers and help avoid blighted neighborhoods.

The panel was rounded out by John Bitely of Sable Developing, Inc.,  which focuses on affordable high-quality homes. In the midst of a far-ranging discussion about foreclosures, neighborhood stabilization, and homeownership, Bitely shared that he feels working toward equity in housing will require a great number of programs and policy changes — there is no magic bullet.

James Perry spoke stirringly during lunch about the fair housing struggles in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. He talked about reviewing online advertising from people willing to share their housing with others who had lost everything in the disaster, where those posting confined their offer to “white only”  or a “white Catholic family.”

Surprised when the website owners refused to take those ads down — “they fought us aggressively,” he said — the GNOFHAC pursued them in court. While ultimately ruling for the other side, the presiding judge’s opinion language was so persuasive that national attention eventually resulted in the websites backing down.

The organization also ended up suing HUD over a policy that used home value to determine how much to reimburse when giving rebuilding assistance, unfair since black neighborhoods had lower values, which resulted in a beneficial settlement. In litigation that is still not resolved, GNOFHAC also  sued a local parish which, after Katrina, passed an ordinance that only people who were blood relatives of current residents were allowed to move  to the parish.