The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Fair Housing Advocates Call for Stricter Law Enforcement

Feature Story by civilrights.org staff - 4/13/2004

At events commemorating April as National Fair Housing Month, advocates for fair housing said that a lack of enforcement has failed to increase equal access for all Americans.

At an April 7 briefing, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) released its 2004 Fair Housing Trends Report and heard testimony from victims of housing discrimination. The NFHA stresses two goals for enforcing fair housing -- to end legal segregation and to achieve integration in the community.

"According to our complaint reports and HUD's recent Housing Discrimination Study, housing discrimination based on race, national origin, and disability is occurring at an alarming rate," said NFHA President Shanna L. Smith. "More than thirty-five years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, it is inexcusable that housing discrimination is so widespread and remains virtually unchallenged."

Since the Fair Housing Act of 1964 was amended in 1988, fair housing advocates say that fair housing enforcement, as stated in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mission, is bleak.

"As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated public school education, we should reflect on the role of fair housing in helping to integrate our neighborhoods and thus our schools," said Karen McGill Lawson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, the research, education, and communications arm of the civil rights coalition collaborating with NFHA. "We need to call on federal, state, and local governments to recommit to strong enforcement of fair housing laws."

According to NFHA's 2004 Fair Housing Trends Report, more than 25,000 complaints were filed in 2003. For that year, however, HUD charged only four cases, while the Department of Justice charged only six.

With a lack of case settlements and a two-year average to process allegations, the public is increasingly losing faith and confidence in HUD as enforcers, said civil rights attorney John Relman.

"The system is broken," he said. "Enforcement done correctly does work, and we have not done enough of it."

As part of its briefing in early April, NFHA invited victims of housing discrimination to share their stories.

A young child, Stephanie Romero, is one of the millions who became a victim of fierce police incursion at her home. After her family's Father Day celebration in 2003, about 20 police officers invaded the Romero's home in Illinois in search of health code violations.

"I was scared. I wasn't even crying, just scared," said Romero, who was woken up, pushed, and ordered by an officer with a flashlight. "I cannot feel safe at home."

Because one home lender in Las Vegas refused to conduct business with African Americans, James Lavender had to spend two weeks in a homeless shelter. As a result of the discrimination and subsequent misplacement, Lavender suffered emotional anxiety and physical harm.

When Lavender's case was filed with HUD, the judge awarded him $200, claiming that there was no clear evidence of Lavender's physical harm. The judge also said that Lavender's experience with racial conflict while growing up in the South should have made him tougher. Lavender's case is being appealed with NFHA support.

"One could not help but be saddened and angered by the victim statements presented at NFHA's press conference," Lawson said. "Their statements show clearly that egregious housing discrimination continues to be a major problem in this country, and cry out for stronger enforcement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development."