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October 31, 2000

Town & Gown

Learning from the Community

Fair Housing Forum Provided A Learning Experience For College Students

by Elliott Lauderdale

The Race Relations and Housing and Social Services Committees of Mobile United organized a community meeting to discuss the Unfinished Business of Fair Housing on 18 October at the Dearborn Community Center. My decision to take my Cultural Diversity class to the meeting was justified by one student who said he had been to many public meetings of various government boards, but this meeting had a different character. More diverse people attempted to address community wide problems. There were seventy people in the gym at the Dearborn Y.

One difference was the range of perspectives brought together to address this general problem. Members of a panel, which included fair-housing activists, a realtor, a banker, the city’s Environmental Court judge and non-profit organization representatives, were each given only five minutes to provide an overview of problems and solutions. Our emphasis was on inviting public responses.

Moderator Ben Harris, chairman of the Race Relations committee, thanked Darick Simpson our host at the Dearborn Community Center, and introduced Dr. Bill White of the University of South Alabama’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology for an overview of evidence. In the past thirty-six years laws have been changed to reduce unfair or disparate treatment, prejudice has declined, but our behavior and power relations have stayed much the same. Blacks earn 56 percent of what Whites earn. The index of discrimination that measures housing segregation has declined from 0.76 in the sixties, to .68 in 1970, to .62 in 2000. Dr. White did not find this improvement significant. There are still areas of our community inside a red line which do not receive financing, to which black home buyers are often steered, and in which many people are destitute.

Despite some beliefs to the contrary, Dr. White noted that 88 percent of blacks prefer integrated neighborhoods. Whites, to the contrary, like white neighborhoods. Dr. White said that one black neighbor is fine for most white folks, but two or more often cause For Sale signs to sprout. Banks often lend less, ask for higher down payments, and charge higher interest rates to blacks with similar credit history and income.

White noted harsh consequences of an institutionally structured inequality. Blacks participate less, have lower self-perception, unequal educational opportunities, and hostility between the races increases. "We do really know each other, and some may not want to change things."

To conclude, Dr. White cited Jonathan Kozol’s description of an East St. Louis kindergarten class in his book Savage Inequalities. Of twenty-four children, 38 percent are likely to graduate, 4 to college, 1 to graduate from college. Three are likely to be in prison. How can we face these six-year-olds?

Henry Brewster is an attorney who successfully brought the case that established the Fair Housing Center in Mobile. This class action suit for 2,500 renters found that a system of coding for black applicants was developed to exclude them as renters. As part of the $1.8 million settlement, $250,000 was set aside to found the Fair Housing Center. One black student, who as a manager at a department store was insulted by customers’ racial epithets ("Are you going to take that from that little N"), was profoundly shocked that such discriminatory behavior can occur in a modern rental company. Both of these events belie the common feeling we discover in our surveys of whites that "discrimination is a thing of the past."

Tracy Cherry, Executive Director of the Fair Housing Center, described their work investigating complaints, training testers to do investigations, negotiating settlements, and bringing suits as a last resort. They work to prevent discrimination based on race, sex, religion, age, nationality, disability, or family status. She finds many cases of pregnant women or single women with children who are illegally excluded from residences. In many cases discrimination is more subtle - "that was just rented" or "they decided to stay." There are still cases such as the broken windows and eggs and paint thrown on a family’s house on Pleasant Valley Road. Ms. Cherry invited volunteers to help with testing or anyone with complaints to visit their office or call.

Firdaus Rahman has worked sixteen years with REMAX and teaches a mandatory class for realtors wanting to renew their licenses developed by the National Associations of Realtors with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While she says she has not noticed problems, if there are problems the local Board of Realtors welcomes complaints.

Judge Holmes Whiddon of the City of Mobile Environmental Court told the group how he was inspired to action by the shock of the cruel injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Environmental Court enforces building codes for all structures in the city limits. Following due process he can charge fines or assign jail time for non-compliance. Some conditions are atrocious - dwellings that do not keep the weather out, plumbing that does not work, bathrooms that fall through the floor. He mentioned efforts begun by the city to provide affordable housing and to develop Economic Development Centers in poor minority neighborhoods.

Sidney King, President of Commonwealth Bank, emphasized the importance of the Community Reinvestment Act for assuring equal opportunity housing. Their bank has spent twenty-five years serving the underserved. They have been able to find good loans by more personal treatment, by asking more questions. For example, some people have had their credit destroyed by a spouse but have held jobs for twenty-five years and are excellent prospects for mortgages.

Nida Threet described the work of Habitat for Humanity, a faith-based organization that provides subsidized loans for folks willing to contribute to the building of their home with sweat equity. It often takes two years before a family can move into their new house.

Sandra Dunaway of the Consumer Credit Counseling Center described their work helping make housing affordable to people who have little or no ability to save money. Some of the economic forces that limit opportunity can be managed through education about one’s rights and responsibilities. Credit histories can be corrected.

Ben Harris sought questions from the audience. Much of the discussion concerned problems between landlords and tenants. One woman had a Section 8 voucher but could not find safe Section 8 housing. A worker at Catholic Social Services noted how hard it was for her to find housing for a handicapped person with a Section 8 voucher. One person described how he lost money on a Dauphin Island Parkway house because of complex regulations for Section 8.

Several landlords were mentioned that did not keep their property habitable. Both Judge Whiddon and Henry Brewster noted the problems of enforcing our right to "quiet and peaceful enjoyment" of a residence. Mr. Brewster noted how the absence of landlord tenant laws or habitability laws dissociates tenants’ and landlords’ sides of the bargain. It is illegal to withhold rent to force repairs. If a tenant is unhappy with repairs or service their only recourse is to terminate the lease and move out, which is no solution at all. Some leases, including Section 8 leases, contractually obligate landlords.

Several participants noted irregularities and double standards in the provision of affordable housing. The government offers help with affordable housing, but it is made too difficult to take advantage of the help. Some described unusual arrangements in which tenants were asked to subsidize the bringing of Section 8 housing up to requirements before they could use their vouchers.

What can citizens do to make housing more fair? One solution is to use the services of good corporate citizens. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) publishes figures on banks’ fulfillment of obligations under the Community Redevelopment Act (CRA). Review a bank’s Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data. There is a public HMDA loan application register, CRA statement, and public-comment file. Figures indicate the number of minority lenders rejected, and loans made to traditionally redlined areas of the community.

Unfairness still prevails, as indicated by a recent HUD decision cited in the Sun Reporter (Nov. 26, 1998, V.55; N.46, p. 3) "Cuomo Announces Groundbreaking Nationwide Audit Of Housing Discrimination Around Nation." "The latest data on mortgage denial by race and ethnicity, made available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) for 1997, show denial rates for conventional mortgages of 53 percent for black applicants, 52 percent for Native American Indians, 38 percent for Hispanics, 26 percent for whites, and 13 percent for Asian-Americans. Differences among the groups remain even after income levels are accounted for. Last year, upper income black and Hispanic applicants were denied conventional mortgages more than twice as often as whites at that income level. Previous studies that account for income and credit risk -- most notably the same by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston -- suggest that discrimination explains a significant part of the gap."

Fair Housing problems are still with us. Our agencies have become more refined in their the fight against discrimination and for fairness. An article in the New York Voice (Jul 21, 1999, V.41; N.16, p. 4) noted "Indeed, the CRA, a law enacted back in 1977, has encouraged financial institutions to lend more than $1 trillion in the communities where they are located. How? Before banks and thrifts can win approval from regulators to expand, they must achieve at least a satisfactory community lending record. The process has worked well for communities and bankers, who have profited from loans in areas they feared would be high risk...Between 1993 and 1997, home mortgage loans to African-Americans increased by 62 percent. In the same time frame, mortgage loans increased by 58 percent to Hispanics, by 30 percent to Asian Americans, and by 25 percent to Native Americans." In November 1999 the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act passed, weakening the Community Reinvestment Act. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) successfully fought to restore the CRA to its original condition.

In addition to supporting political leaders, developers, real estate agencies and banks that act to support fair housing, the public can call for more efficiency and fairness for both landlords and tenants in the provision of section 8 housing by local and national officials. One advantage of Section 8 housing is that it allows recourse for tenants who are not treated fairly. Well-designed leases can obligate landlords contractually. Through community education and pressure, landlords can be encouraged to sign more equitable leases.


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