California an example of shift in violations as Fair Housing Act anniversary approaches
By Corey Arvin
Discrimination against housing applicants and would-be homeowners were once a notorious challenge for minorities, particularly African-Americans. Fears of African-American integration spurred discrimination from lenders and landlords to the extent that expansion of federal civil rights laws became a necessity with the introduction of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.
Nearly 50 years later, the same complaints of Fair Housing Act violations continue, but in more subtle forms as the burden shifts to Hispanics and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) housing applicants.
The number of formal complaints filed by blacks is at lowest in five years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Last year, 1,945 cases involving blacks were filed while 2,614 were filed in 2009.
Riverside County, home to nearly 2.2 million residents, has experienced a surge in its Hispanic population growth, which accounted for 45.5 percent of the total population, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. In 2000, Hispanics were 36.2 percent according to the U.S. Census. As the fourth most-populated county in the state – and one of the largest in the entire U.S. – its housing woes are not so unique and have become a tell-tale indicator of how housing violation trends are changing elsewhere.
The pervasive debate on immigration reform has spilled into real estate with prospective Hispanic homeowners and renters increasingly facing discrimination in Riverside County over concerns that illegal immigrants may acquire housing or sends the “wrong message” is sent about immigration by extending housing to Hispanics.
This issue is a growing problem that the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County now contends with every week, according to Marlan McClanahan, a Fair Lending and Education Outreach specialist and Foreclosure Prevention Counselor.
“We see it every day, even though the racism does still exist. The discrimination changes, it adapts to the times. Most people don’t understand that now it’s not so blatant. It’s not ‘you’re black’, ‘you’re Mexican’, ‘you’re of old age so I’m not going to rent to you.’ It’s more subtle,” said McClanahan.
Subtle, but not harder to prove, he added.
Discrimination is also prevalent in the LGBT community, particularly among gays living with HIV in Palm Springs, a resort town with a substantial LGBT population. Where segments of a population are stronger, such as Hispanics in Riverside County, the more likely there are cases of alleged fair housing violations, according to McClanahan.
In part, McClanahan blames the ongoing Fair Housing Act violations on an increase in hedge fund investors buying cheaper properties following the foreclosure crisis, many of which have little or no understanding of fair housing requirements, he said. It has also become routine for hedge fund investors to buy multiple distressed properties in the region and evict the homeowner owner rather than mitigate loss on the home loan, he added.
“The attack on affordable housing has been tremendous. Just a couple of years back, there had been a reduction of a million dollars of properties here. You now see ripple effects. You see cases in which, as a result of the foreclosure crisis, as homes were bought up by investors, the rental prices had gone up so much that [low income] people can’t afford it. As a result, lower-income people are being disserviced again,” said McClanahan.
According to Maria Elena Gaona, a spokeswoman for HUD, the department has used several outreach programs and partnerships to continue educating and enforcing the Fair Housing Act. HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity administers the Fair Housing Act, and HUD funds private non-profit fair housing groups and other organizations through the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) to support fair housing enforcement and education in local communities. HUD also funds the Fair Housing Assistance Program, to support fair housing enforcement and education with state and local governments.
“The Fair Housing Act is just as relevant today as when it was passed in 1968. Through enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, we can stop illegal housing discrimination,” she said.
Though heavily supported with partnerships through the city and county, including secret representatives screening landlords for possible violations, fear and intimidation prevents many victims of housing discrimination from ever filing a formal complaint. It is a very common occurrence among Hispanic migrants who are afraid a complaint could trigger an investigation into their immigration status, according to McClanahan.
“It’s a violation of the Fair Housing Act to threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right, but we know it happens. We are aware of many cases where victims were intimidated or apprehensive about filing a complaint because they feared retaliation from their landlords or others, or felt they didn’t have the knowledge of what constitutes housing discrimination, but we encourage people to file complaints—and if there are allegations of intimidation or retaliation, we will investigate those too,” said Gaona.
The broad solution for places like Riverside County is access to local affordable housing to curb fair housing violations, however, it is a very complex solution that will require a combined effort to become a reality, said McClanahan.
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