9th Annual Fair Housing and Civil Rights
Conference a Success!
Each year MFHC sponsors and helps coordinate the Northeast Fair Housing and Civil Rights Conference held at the Sheraton in Springfield. Now in its 9th year, the two-day Conference brought together civil rights advocates from all over the Northeast to discuss important issues such as Creating Inclusive Communities, Overcoming Unconscious Bias, War on Drugs, Immigrant Worker Civil Rights, Debt and Democracy, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. There were nearly 500 participants. As always, the conference was free and open to the public. This year, we were particularly delighted to bring together several distinguished keynote speakers whose powerful speeches inspired the large audience. Our first keynote speaker is a true hero of the civil rights movement, Dr. Joseph McNeil, a retired Major General of the U.S. Air Force. Dr. Joseph is best known for his courage as a member of the Greensboro Four, a group of African American college students who on February 1, 1960 sat down at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina and successfully challenged the store's policy of denying service to non-white customers. Our other outstanding speakers included Gustavo Velasquez, the Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Tamar Hagler, Deputy Chief in the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Ralph Martin II, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Northeastern University. We would like to thank the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for their support, as well as our partners, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, HAPHousing, Western New England University, Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, SouthCoast Fair Housing, Inc., and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. We also gratefully acknowledge the generous support of PeoplesBank, LaJustice Printing Company, and the Springfield Sheraton.
Reasonable Accommodation Protects Deaf Man’s Right to Remain in his Accessible Home
David was distraught when he was told he would have to move from his home if he wanted to keep his Section 8 housing voucher. David is Deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He also uses a wheelchair. In 2009, a childhood friend, who is also Deaf, offered to rent him a room in her home. This home provides David with an enhanced ability to live independently because it was adapted to accommodate David’s disabilities. For example, the home has 9 flashing lights--to alert David and his friend when someone is at the door--and a wheelchair ramp which allows David to get in and out of his home on his own. Because David lives on a fixed income, he was paying more than 62% percent of his income for rent. In March, David was notified that he would receive a Section 8 voucher, which would reduce his rent burden. Unfortunately, David was incorrectly told that if he wanted to keep his Section 8 voucher, he would need to move to a different home because federal law does not allow a Section 8 voucher holder to live with the owner of the home. David looked for other housing, but was unable to find anything that would accommodate his disability-related needs. If he could not find another home, he would lose his voucher.
Karran Larson of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing referred David’s case to Meris Bergquist of MFHC and Paul Schack of Community Legal Aid (CLA). Working together on David’s behalf, they met with David at his home in Adams, Massachusetts and were able to see firsthand how the adaptations in the home promoted David’s independence. After researching the federal regulations, the attorneys discovered that the law would allow David to live in shared housing, with the owner of the home, as a reasonable accommodation of David’s disabilities. MFHC and CLA then made a formal request for a reasonable accommodation to allow David to remain in his home. After initially denying the request, the agency changed course and agreed that David is entitled to the reasonable accommodation. Three months after David was told that he would have to move out of his home, he received notice that he could stay and maintain his independence.
If you suspect housing discrimination because of your race, national origin, color, religion, sex, familial status, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, age, veteran’s status, receipt of public assistance, including Section 8 housing assistance, presence of lead paint, or gender identity or expression, please call us at 413-539-9796 x 101 or complete an intake on line at www.massfairhousing.org.
MFHC Hosts Film and Discussion with Representative Aaron Vega
MFHC hosted a community discussion in May at the beautiful Gateway City Arts Center in Holyoke. The event opened with the short award-winning documentary film called “A Matter of Place.” This film profiles individuals who have experienced housing discrimination and explores the history of housing segregation in the United States. MFHC Legal Director, Ashley Grant, hosted the event and Staff Attorney, Rebecca Lopez, introduced the film. The screening was followed by a lively panel discussion with experts on current fair housing issues facing Holyoke, including State Representative Aaron Vega, Meris Bergquist, Executive Director of MFHC, and John Fisher, Fair Housing Coordinator for HAPHousing. The panel was moderated by Professor Harris Freeman of Western New England University School of Law. MFHC hopes this will be the first of many public screenings. According to Meris Bergquist, “MFHC looks forward to showing this award-winning film to other audiences to prompt a conversation about how we can work together to overcome housing discrimination and create more inclusive communities.”
Supreme Court Decision Upholds Disparate Impact
On June 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that preserves the right to challenge neutral policies that can have a disparate impact on protected classes, like race, national origin, sex and disability. Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, noted that the right to challenge housing policies that have such a disparate impact is a key tool needed to challenge systemic discrimination. Kennedy observed that it's naive to believe all housing segregation can be attributed to conscious bias. Rather, he said, the vestiges of legally mandated segregation remain “intertwined with the country's economic and social life.” The decision was based on an analysis of the text of the Fair Housing Act, its legislative history and its legislature purpose to promote integration. This decision keeps the court room door open to challenge neutral governmental or private policies that have a more negative effect based on race, or some other protected category, without having to prove intentional discrimination. This is particularly important in Western Massachusetts where the rate of segregation between Latinos and Whites in the highest in the nation.
HUD Issues Important Rule to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing
Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court ruling on disparate impact, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its final rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Today. This rule will provide data and other tools to grantees of HUD funding--including cities and towns that receive Community Development Block Grant funding--to help them comply with their legal obligation to take affirmative steps to further fair housing. Discussing the significance of the new rule, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, noted that “Unfortunately, too many Americans find their dreams limited by where they come from, and a ZIP code should never determine a child’s future. This important step will give local leaders the tools they need to provide all Americans with access to safe, affordable housing in communities that are rich with opportunity.”