By John F. Tenbusch, Planner I, St. Lawrence County Planning Office
Fair housing is the law: it involves legal protection when housing choice is restricted on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, handicap or other protected class. Both intentional discrimination and actions and conditions that have the effect of limiting choice are prohibited.
In order to obtain local compliance with Federal law, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has had a long-standing mandate requiring state and local jurisdictions and housing providers receiving HUD funds to meet certain standards or take specific actions to affirmatively further fair housing. These have included passage of local fair housing laws, fair housing marketing requirements, tenant selection and assignment criteria, program accessibility, reasonable accommodations, and other activities.
HUD requires local communities to certify that they affirmatively further fair housing as a condition of receiving Federal funds; HUD defines this obligation as requiring the grantee to conduct an analysis to identify impediments to fair housing choice within the community; take appropriate actions to overcome the effects of identified impediments; and to maintain records concerning the local analysis and activities.
Since 1995 HUD has consolidated the submission and reporting requirements for several community development formula grant programs (Community Development Block Grants, for instance) into a single plan -- the Consolidated Plan. The Consolidated Plan continues the requirement that local communities affirmatively further fair housing through the analysis of impediments process.
While the Consolidated Plan requirement still obliges local jurisdictions to conduct an analysis of impediments to fair housing choice, it encourages considerable flexibility in the specific methodology. According to the Fair Housing Planning Guide (HUD, 1996): “[HUD] believes that the principles embodied in the concept of ‘fair housing’ are fundamental to healthy communities, and that communities must be encouraged and supported to include real, effective fair housing strategies in their overall planning and development process, not only because it is the law, but because it is the right thing to do.
“Local communities will meet this obligation by performing an analysis of the impediments to fair housing choice within their communities and developing (and implementing) strategies and actions to overcome these barriers based on their history, circumstances, and experiences. In other words, the local communities will define the problems, develop the solutions, and be held accountable for meeting the standards they set for themselves.”
Generic data recommended by HUD for inclusion in an Analysis of Impediments include: public policies and practices involving housing and related activities; zoning and land use policies; evidence of any fair housing complaints; demographic patterns; Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data; results of any testing; patterns of occupancy in public and private rental housing. HUD further recommends that an AI process involve local governments, fair housing organizations, advocacy groups, housing providers, banks and other financial institutions, educational institutions, and other organizations that can provide information or ideas about fair housing problems and strategies for addressing the issues.
St. Lawrence County established a Fair Housing Task Force in 1991; its purpose is to develop strategies and produce programs to affirmatively further fair housing choice in the county. Since its inception, the Task Force has sponsored and participated in numerous workshops throughout the county on various fair housing topics. However, until now the Task Force had not conducted an analysis of impediments (AI) to fair housing choice.
Recent events, including greater HUD scrutiny of local Consolidated Plans, a need to complete an analysis of impediments to fair housing in conjunction with Jefferson and Lewis Counties for the North Country HOME Consortium, and an understanding that the county is becoming increasingly diverse, have prompted the St. Lawrence County Fair Housing Task Force to begin an analysis of local impediments to fair housing choice. The AI process represents an opportunity for the Fair Housing Task force to be proactive rather than reactive, to identify issues and develop strategies to further fair housing choice without the pressure of a polarized situation demanding solutions amidst confrontation.
The County Fair Housing Task Force began its AI process in late 1998 by reviewing HUD recommendations contained in the Fair Housing Planning Guide. Additionally, the Task Force reviewed an AI model that had been developed by the North Country HOME Consortium. The Task Force decided to adopt the Consortium’s model, for two reasons. First, adherence to a consistent model by all three counties will enable the eventual HOME Consortium Analysis of Impediments to maintain an internal coherence.
Second, and most important, the Consortium AI model emphasized maximum participation by stakeholders in the development of fair housing issues and impediments. These stakeholders include representatives from local governments, housing providers (public and private, rental and for sale), social service agencies, lenders, religious social action agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and other groups which might be predicted to have knowledge of, or deal with the effects from, impediments to fair housing choice. By working with these stakeholders to identify impediments, the Task Force was not only able to benefit from the institutional experience of each organization about fair housing issues, but also to rely on each groups’ organizational stability: there will continue to be somebody from each organization to review, critique and comment of each step of the Task Force’s AI process.
The St. Lawrence County Fair Housing Task Force decided to convene a stakeholder workshop to discuss current problems with fair housing choice, and to begin to identify strategies for actions to ensure equal choice. This workshop, held March 19th, involved more than 50 representatives from local groups with awareness of issues involving race, poverty, mental and physical handicaps; additionally, lenders, landlords, social service agency personnel, public and private housing providers and planners were involved. The Consortium counties sent observers.
At the workshop, participants broke into small groups, bringing their collective experience together to brainstorm about what impediments exist to fair housing choice. After a period of facilitated discussion, the groups reported their results to the whole assembly. After voting to prioritize among issues, the major impediments to fair housing choice were determined to include issues of education, housing condition and access, specialized housing programs, and transportation.
- A lack of education about fair housing issues was demonstrated by the number of persons commenting on: the need to make physical improvements for people with special needs; the need to provide outreach for and evaluation of existing fair housing programs; the need to overcome social discrimination, including the stigma of “low-income”; and, the need to provide funding mechanisms to increase housing choice for affected populations.
- Participants commented on the poor condition of many available housing units and the limited access to housing choice by noting the need to make physical improvements for persons with special needs, to provide improved accessibility to existing housing units, and to improve living conditions in low-income housing.
- People described the need for more specialized housing types and programs, including the provision of supportive housing, and the development of programs designed to overcome institutional barriers to housing choice. These barriers include zoning and building code issues, and lending and insurance restrictions, etc.
- Finally, stakeholders noted that access to fair housing choice is not possible without adequate transportation. In a rural area like St. Lawrence County, available, attractive and affordable housing might be inaccessible to persons in need, because of a lack of personal and public transportation.
A second round of small-group discussions concerned what activities might overcome or neutralize the significant impediments. After the small groups reported their conclusions back to the main body, these activities were also prioritized by voting.
- To overcome educational impediments to fair housing choice, participants advocated additional outreach efforts in the community; especially involving churches and clients of service providers. An informational clearinghouse was emphasized; this could even involve a Web site. Outreach should also be focused on service providers to expand their awareness of fair housing issues. Development of a legislative agenda to improve access to housing choice will stimulate government at several levels to include fair housing concepts in other legislation.
- The group also advocated additional self-searching to increase one’s own awareness of how fair housing issues can be embedded in other, seemingly separate matters One participant wrote afterward that “Becoming aware of the special needs of the diverse population was an important factor.”
- To improve housing conditions and access to housing units, the group advocated additional funding assistance for improvements to housing units. This additional funding might be used to create incentives for landlords to make their own improvements. Gaps in the spectrum of available housing types should be identified and targeted for development. Building code enforcement can be used to improve living conditions in housing units available to low-income or protected-class individuals. Checklists can be developed for public information, so that tenants will know what constitutes a decent minimum standard of habitability.
- The group decided that since special populations have specific housing needs, these needs should be prioritized; one such special need is 24-hour access to housing for mentally ill persons. While additional funding is required to address special needs, the group wanted to take care to integrate special needs housing into the community -- sometimes, the establishment of a not-for-profit housing site in a small community can have negative effects on the local tax base, and contribute to negative perceptions about tenants on the part of community residents.
- Regarding transportation issues, the group decided there is a need for additional studies to determine patterns of need and potential for service. Acknowledging that past studies have demonstrated need but have not found ways to fund service, the group decided that additional transportation funding should be part of a legislative agenda. Additionally, the group saw the need to change DSS regulations to enable low- and moderate-income persons receiving social services assistance to own better cars; the current restrictions on value of recipients’ vehicles ($1,500 maximum) just ensures that they are unreliable.
The “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice” workshop held in St. Lawrence County on March 19th was a good first step toward the local development of a locally-based strategy to address fair housing issues in the County. As a first step, it will be incorporated with other information to develop an “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice in St. Lawrence County” that will be a guiding document in the development and operation of strategies to affirmatively further fair housing choice in the county. The Fair Housing Task Force’s “Analysis” will be reviewed periodically to ensure that it remains appropriate as a guide to the many stakeholder groups.
However, the workshop’s greatest benefit may have been to develop an awareness among participants that, while “fair housing” is a concept that can be defined by laws and statutes and regulations, “equal access to fair housing” is a concept that must involve the entire community to ensure a place within the community for each one of our neighbors.
Questions about the St. Lawrence County Fair Housing Task Force can be addressed to the author at 315-379-2292, or by e-mail.