At a recent workshop in Wilmington, a state expert explained who is covered when it comes to the Fair Housing Act, a federal law passed 50 years ago to protect buyers and renters from discrimination.
The protected categories are race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and family status.
And in North Carolina, explained Jack Holtzman, co-director of the Fair Housing Project of Legal Aid of NC, local governments can’t discriminate against developers of affordable housing. In other words, city or county officials couldn’t prohibit an affordable housing project just because they don’t want affordable housing in a particular area.
Holtzman was the keynote speaker April 24 at the Northeast Branch of the New Hanover County Public Library during a Fair Housing Workshop hosted by the Cape Fear Housing Coalition.
Holtzman pointed out some of the few exemptions to the law, including a provision that means a person who wants to sell a single home they own doesn’t have to comply.
“But the moment that somebody puts a sign in the yard, once they advertise it or once they use a Realtor, then they are covered by the Fair Housing Act,” he said.
Communities that are specifically for homebuyers ages 55 and up, such as Del Webb Wilmington on River Road in RiverLights, are allowed if certified by the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) federal agency.
The protected class of families with children is also a broad category, Holtzman said, covering any adult caring for a child under 18 years old. It doesn’t make a difference whether the adult is the child’s biological, adoptive or foster parent or whether the parent or parents are gay or straight, the law applies, he said. It also applies to pregnant women.
Referring to another protected class in the law, Holtzman said, “Discrimination against tenants with disabilities is a very large component of the complaints that we get.”
Also addressing that issue specifically, another speaker at the Wilmington workshop, disAbility Resource Center executive director Gloria Garton, said, “The biggest problem we have with fair housing is not necessarily servicing rules or making accommodations; it’s once they get into housing, helping them keep their housing because any time they voice a concern or ask for something to be repaired, they fear retaliation.”
As a result of that fear, Garton said, disabled residents will sometimes put up with the worst living conditions imaginable “because they just figure, ‘I can’t say anything because if I do, I will lose my housing’... unfortunately we have a few properties in Wilmington that like to manage by threats. They threaten evictions, they cause stress, they make their [the residents’] medical conditions worse.”
That fear can be exacerbated because fair housing and affordable housing are intertwined, Garton said.
The Fair Housing Act doesn’t cover income levels or wealth status, but affordable housing, which is housing that doesn’t cost more than 30 percent of a person’s income, is an increasing concern in the Wilmington area. Many Wilmington residents, including a majority of renters, are paying more than 30 percent of their income to live here.
During the workshop, Cecelia Peers, Continuum of Care director for the Tri-County Homeless Interagency Council, part of the Cape Fear Council of Governments, shared information about the Landlord Incentive Pilot Program that aims to encourage landlords to rent to those seeking a second chance at housing.
In Wilmington, Good Shepherd Center is the lead agency for the program, Peers explained.
“When agencies are trying to provide someone who has had a break in their housing with the support to get back into housing and to be successful, the pilot program offers landlords a financial guarantee for some of the things that landlords are really worried about happening, which typically are that people will stop paying rents and then they’ll have to do an eviction.”
Earlier this year, the N.C Housing Finance Agency made $100,000 available to the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness for the pilot program.
Four local organizations in the state, including Good Shepherd, were chosen to “work with property owners seeking reimbursement for rental losses such as damages, unpaid rent and security deposits, as well as providing housing stability bonuses to landlords who successfully retain tenants,” a news release said.
Shanetta Moye, director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program of the Wilmington Housing Authority, let attendees at the workshop know that WHA is planning a subsequent session on Section 8 vouchers to share more information on a program about which landlords can have numerous misconceptions.
A representative from Cape Fear Realtors, one of the sponsors of the workshop along with WHA and many others, presented a video made by the National Association of Realtors commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.
During the video, Chicago Realtor Frank Williams explained part of the impetus for the Fair Housing Act in the 1960s, saying, “There was a thing known as white flight. If there were two or three African Americans in a block, then it’s time to go. Real estate brokers [were] taking full advantage of those fears, of that flight. That’s how many of the communities were changing block by block through the course of a summer.”
Densay Sengsoulavong, government affairs director for Cape Fear Realtors who presented the NAR video April 24, said CFR is working on an upcoming event that will serve as a local commemoration of the Fair Housing Act.
Meanwhile, in Wilmington and New Hanover County, Holtzman said, “like the rest of North Carolina, the vast majority of the housing providers are good individuals who run a business and provide a service, housing for people for compensation, and do a good job. There always have been and there continue to be a few businesses and individuals who discriminate, and often it’s difficult to determine that except by testing.”
That’s one of the three main jobs of the Fair Housing Project – to send similarly situated testers out or have them call housing providers or Realtors to see whether the testers are treated fairly. The agency also educates, such as the Wilmington presentation April 24, and files complaints in state and federal courts and with state and local agencies set up to address such complaints.
“We work closely with Realtors and housing providers, as well as tenants and local government agencies to promote fair housing, and I think it is a group effort,” Holtzman said. “I think everybody benefits by addressing those few instances where there is active discrimination.”