Fair Housing event highlights West Michigan problems


Fair housing is still a game that needs to be won in West Michigan.

The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, a Grand Rapids nonprofit that fights to eliminate housing discrimination, hosted its 29th Expanding the Fair Housing Playbook annual luncheon and workshop series May 19 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 5700 28th St. SE, Grand Rapids.

In spirit with the event’s sporting theme, Herman Boone, whose high school football coaching career was portrayed in the 2000 Denzel Washington film “Remember the Titans,” served as keynote speaker.

Boone became a football legend after he served as the first consolidated head football coach of the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School Titans in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1971. Amidst a tense racial atmosphere, Boone brought the white and black players together to win the 1971 Virginia State Championship. Washington was so inspired by the story, he was willing to take a pay cut to take the role, Boone said.

“My story, ‘Remember the Titans,’ is related to every organization in America that has had mountains and mountains of discrimination to overcome. And overcome, by God, they did,” Boone said. “President Nixon said … the Titans saved the city of Alexandria.”

The Fair Housing Center event also featured two awards. Its Fair Housing Award went to Marlene Cain of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and the Fair Housing Advocate Award was given to retired Grand Rapids District Court Judge Benjamin Logan. 

Most of center’s work is done “at the intersection of affordable housing and housing discrimination,” said Nancy Haynes, the center’s executive director. When the housing market tightens, the community must be vigilant so the hype-market doesn’t lead to discrimination, she said.

“Less than 1 percent of the victims of housing discrimination ever realize they’ve been the victims of housing discrimination,” Haynes said.

“If you went somewhere and they said, “Yeah, we did have that posted that we had that available, but someone just got here. Sorry, check back again in a month,’ you’d say, ‘Oh darn, if I hadn’t stopped for coffee, I could’ve had this apartment’ — and you’d never know it was because of your gender or something else.”

According to the center’s 2015 annual report, last year it managed 233 fair-housing cases, 171 of which were newly initiated in 2015. The cases pertained to individuals within 37 West Michigan municipalities in 10 counties. As a result of the casework, the center resolved and closed 180 complaints last year, 118 of which were from the 171 cases initiated in 2015. A total of 300 clients benefited from these resolutions.

The center had $726,488 in revenue in 2015. About 64 percent of that came from federal grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 2015, the center also helped 18 people obtain a reasonable accommodation or modification, filed 12 complaints with government agencies, prompted 24 housing providers to modify their business practices to comply with fair housing law, resolved 15 cases of discriminatory policies against families with no children, helped 14 families retain safe affordable housing, and opened up 1,537 units from housing discrimination, 614 of which were specifically for seniors, according to the report.

It was a busy but fairly typical year, said Haynes, adding most of the discrimination is not done in malice but out of ignorance.

“I believe 99 percent of the discriminations happen because people just don’t understand their obligations, and then you get the 1 percent, maybe, who know better,” she said. “What we do at the Fair Housing Center is try to help people to understand their rights and obligations under fair housing law.”

In 2015, the center conducted 251 fair housing tests that involved people or property in more than 25 West Michigan municipalities. About 132 of these tests were conducted as market surveys or part of systemic investigation, and 119 were conducted in response to bona fide allegations of housing discrimination. The reports concluded “evidence of significant differences at the rate of 54 percent overall in conclusive testing,” according to the report.

“Consistent with past findings, the Center detected substantial rates of evidence of unequal treatment across almost all protected bases,” the report read. “In fact the Center’s testing detected the highest incidents of discrimination on the basis of familial status (50 evidence tests), race (35 evidence tests) and disability (30 evidence tests). Thus, aside from the rates of evidence, in frequency and practice, race, disability and familial status prove to be the most common bases of potential housing discrimination detected by the Center.”

Sometimes the numbers don’t match exactly because there could be dual discrimination, Haynes said.

“Familial status means the presence of a child under the age of 18 in a home,” she said. “It blows people’s minds that that’s the No. 1 complaint in West Michigan — that and the disability status, and that’s a lot of lack of understanding about accommodations and modifications (to houses).”

Although Boone is known for his legacy of bringing races together on the football field, he is no stranger to fair housing issues. When he was the coach of the Titans, he tried to buy a house near the high school but received a number of slights from the Realtor, who told Boone “it already has a contract on it,” but then told a white coach it was available.

Boone asked the NAACP for help. Both a black and a white agent called the Realtor, who gave the white agent a better deal. They recorded the conversations and threatened legal action. The next day, the defeated Realtor called and said Boone could have the house.

“I like to think that I was a part of the integration of that (neighborhood). … I raised my family in that house, and I’ve been living in that same house with the same wife for over 50 years,” Boone said.

“My team became a team, and I’m asking you, I’m challenging you, I’m begging you to continue to become a team because a team has one vision, one heartbeat,” Boone said. “The road to success for opportunities for fair housing is always under construction. But you must never forget that fair housing is right, so never give up. By God, don’t you ever give up.”

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