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"The National Fair Housing Summit,"

by Ellen Pader March/April 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Convened by HUD, and sponsored by the National Fair Housing Alliance, the National Association of Human Rights Workers and the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies, the National Fair Housing Summit, held in Washington January 19-22, was the largest government-sponsored civil rights meeting in 12 years, and the largest fair housing meeting ever. Some 1,200 people attended. It was as much an occasion for fair housing and other civil rights advocates to vent more than a decade of frustration as for the current Administration to convince us that Justice, HUD and the President are no longer our adversaries, that we are finally on the same side. The Administration was represented most notably by Attorney General Janet Reno, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Roberta Achtenberg, and HUD General Counsel Nelson Diaz; HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was scheduled to be a keynote speaker, but the L.A. earthquakes kept him otherwise occupied.

Two days before the Summit, on Martin Luther King Day, President Clinton issued an Executive Order, "Leadership and Coordination of Fair Housing in Federal Programs: Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing" [send a SASE to PRRAC for a copy.] This establishes a cabinet-level Fair Housing Council, chaired by Secretary Cisneros and comprised of Secretaries from other agencies, the AG and representatives of various financial agencies, to set "a coordinated strategy to affirmatively further fair housing," including social support services. It has been 26 years since the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act) was passed. And even then it took something as monumental as King's assassination to get it out of filibuster and into law. The Fair Housing Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 prohibit discrimination in rental, purchase, mortgage lending, home insurance and advertising on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap or familial status. Yet this meeting was evidence that equal access to decent housing and the right to choose where one lives is still a fantasy for many.

The Reagan and Bush Administrations carefully and systematically dismantled civil rights. They weakened many basic enforcement tools to near extinction by eradicating some of the most effective approaches for litigating housing discrimination. For example, rather than demonstrating that a rental or purchasing practice had a disparate impact on protected classes of people, the Department of Justice was told they could only take on cases for which they could prove intent of discrimination. It is far more difficult to demonstrate motive than effect. Similarly, HUD was instructed to close housing discrimination cases as fast as possible, thereby limiting the number of cases pursued.

The purpose of the Summit seemed twofold: one, as stated, was for the Administration to establish a positive working relation with fair housing advocates; the second was for civil rights advocates to air their complaints about current processes (or lack thereof) and propose new ways of enforcing fair housing policies. Many of the conference participants specialize in fair housing as housing providers, in fair housing organizations, as state and federal government officials, attorneys and academics. For those whose focus was not explicitly housing, it was an opportunity to learn more about fair housing and its centrality to their own anti-discrimination work.

Every panelist from the 11 workshop panels was requested to present recommendations to HUD. These will appear in the final Summit Report. In the meantime, however, there are signs from the Administration that they have started rectifying some of the problems. Greeted by enthusiastic applause, Attorney General Reno announced that Justice will reverse the previous Administration's stance and aggressively pursue disparate impact cases. Furthermore, HUD and Justice will be working together, rather than continuing the antagonistic relation for which they have become known. They will continue to pursue discrimination in financing-Shawmut Bank in New England, The First National Bank of Vicksburg in Mississippi, and Blackpipe State Bank in South Dakota have settled cases and will each be setting aside up to $1 million in compensation for illegal practices such as charging minorities higher interest rates and having discriminatory credit requirements. Another hot area of discussion and enforcement energies is the identification and prosecution of insurance redlining without home insurance, finding a home mortgage (even if one can) is irrelevant.

These successes are important and impressive, but they still function under the Reagan-Bush philosophy that emphasizes homeownership over renting, rather than giving equal weight to the different modes of tenancy. This preference is articulated by HUD's Fair Housing Initiative Program (FHIP), a major source of funding for non-profit fair housing organizations. FHIP will focus funding efforts on projects testing mortgage lending, insurance redlining and appraisal practices. The fear is that this will leave less funding for organizations whose most frequent discrimination complaints are by renters, people who cannot afford to purchase a home. If sufficient funding is not allocated for rental testing as well,: this will have a disparate impact on low-income renters. In workshops and in keynotes, the centrality of testing to obtain evidence for rental, mortgage and insurance discrimination was reinforced. Assistant Secretary Achtenberg recognized the key role private nonprofit fair housing organizations have played in maintaining housing rights during the past 12 years and developing testing procedures.

While much of the Administration's new fair housing initiatives is still at the paper and verbal stage, many of us left feeling cautiously optimistic that the commitment to civil rights by Henry Cisneros, Janet Reno and Roberta Achtenberg will translate into increased resources, more effective enforcement and stronger fair housing laws. With the caveat that HUD works within the constraints of limited resources and the political process, Achtenberg asserted that: "We are going to empower you to carry on the quest for fair housing, long after we have departed Washington, regardless of who succeeds us. We will do this through Executive Orders, regulations, stronger federal programs, [and] increased financial support. . . "

Ellen Pader, an anthropologist, is Director of the Regional Planning Prog. and Assoc. Dir. of the Housing Research Ctr. at the Univ. of Mass.-Amherst and a board member of the Housing Discrimination Project in Holyoke. The final Summit Report, as well as tapes of the panel workshops and other materials, will be available in mid-March from the Fair Housing Information Clearinghouse, 800/343-3442.
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