News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

March 16, 2014

Homeless, renters, leasers

Housing discrimination hits those with disabilities hardest, at 1/3 of claims

TERRE HAUTE — All kinds of housing issues come to the attention of the Terre Haute Human Relations Committee, including discrimination.

According to THHRC director Jeff Lorick, knowing one’s legal rights is the best thing a person do to protect their housing.

“Tenants often don’t know their rights, and they end up getting evicted or having terms and conditions placed on them because they don’t know their rights,” Lorick said. “And a lot of time, people don’t have a lease. They are living on a month-to-month contingency.”

Lorick said that he constantly talks to people about their rights –  both as renters and as property owners dealing with lending institutions.

Jeff Stewart, director of the Terre Haute Housing Authority, agrees that both tenants and landlords need to be clear about any agreement they sign, and to follow the rules so they do not jeopardize their housing.

The impact of homelessness will be one of the panel discussions included Tuesday in the 13th annual Terre Haute Human Rights Day, hosted in Hulman Memorial Student Union at Indiana State University.

The day’s events are free and open to the public.

The Terre Haute Housing Authority is a large provider of subsidized housing in the city, with more than 1,200 units that are owned or leased out. The THHA also administers the federal Section 8 housing program of Housing and Urban Development, which provides rental assistance vouchers to qualifying renters who seek housing from private landlords.

Even with 1,200 units, the demand for subsidized housing is greater than the supply.

“We have a healthy waiting list,” Stewart said. “We have no trouble keeping our waiting list full. I think we are doing best serving the elderly and disabled. There is a larger need for the two- and three-bedroom units.”

As far as claims of unfair housing, Stewart said he is not aware of claims that have been substantiated in recent years.

“I won’t say it doesn’t happen in our community,” he said.

During a recent civil rights symposium presented by the office of U.S. Attorney Joseph Hogsett, Hoosier advocates and government employees learned about housing discrimination and discussed federal civil rights laws and trends.

Maurine McGough, director of the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity for Region V of HUD, explained that his office handles the broad categories of enforcement of federal law and compliance with federal housing rules. Sometimes a complaint is investigated and litigated on the federal level. But more often a complaint of discrimination is handled by a state or local housing agency which tries to work out an agreement between the parties.

While there is a limit of 100 days to complete an investigation, that is usually an unreasonable time frame, said Lisa Danna-Brennan, associate regional counsel for litigation. A good case is finished in about six months to a year, but can take up to two years to resolve, she said. Many cases close when a mutual agreement is reached.

In all states, she said, complaints based on disability rank at the top of those filed from 2008 to 2011. The next largest complaint is race, with family status ranking third.

In 2013, Indiana agencies received 202 complaints. Again, the biggest complaint was discrimination by disability – 33 percent – followed by race at 25 percent, but then national origin at 7 percent of complaints filed. The family status issue was ranged at less than one percent of the cases filed.

HUD has pursued many discrimination cases through the years, Danna-Brennan said, including a case in Lake County where county officials interfered with and retaliated against two employees on the county’s development department for their work on an affordable housing project for lower-income people and minorities.

She said the agency has been doing more work in the area of compliance to assure that local government agencies are providing fair housing opportunities

McGough said the agency sometimes struggles to keep up with its workload in enforcement. That is in part because of a reduction in employees – from 750 nationwide in the 1990s to less than 550 employees now.

“Our ability to enforce the law is dependent upon staffing,” he said.

But that should not discourage anyone with a housing concern to file a complaint with either the local agency that assists with housing issues, or with HUD.

Housing discrimination complaints can be reported by calling 1-800-765-9372.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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