Putting More Teeth Into Enforcement of Fair Housing Laws

Rich Rodgers

Commissioner Fish's plan strengthens the city's overall effort, relative to past years. However, to really put the full power of the city and state of Oregon behind Fair Housing efforts, we should directly tie Fair Housing compliance to eligibility for hundreds of millions of dollars in affordable housing subsidies and property tax abatements.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish has been in the news quite a bit recently in his role as the city's commissioner-in-charge of the Portland Housing Bureau, which gives Commissioner Fish the lead in coordinating the City's enforcement of Federal Fair Housing Laws.

On Friday, June 10th, alongside assistant HUD Secretary John Trasviña and Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industry Commissioner Brad Avakian, Commissioner Fish released the Portland Housing Bureau's Fair Housing Action Plan, which was billed at the city's first comprehensive fair housing plan. I encourage you to take a look at the plan. It's well conceived, and supported by a great deal of community input as well as policy and technical work.

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires each state and local government to submit proof that it is in compliance with federal fair housing laws. The requirements include an "analysis of impediments to fair housing choice", recommendations and actions to address and overcome the effects of these impediments, and record keeping showing what was done. The City of Portland's 2011 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice report builds upon the 2005 Fair Housing Plan and the 1996 Fair Housing Plan. Included for the first time in the most recent effort was a city-funded Fair Housing Audit, performed by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. The audit found that landlords and leasing agents discriminated against African American or Latino renters in 64 percent of 50 tests across the city, making it clear that racial discrimination is still a fundamental characteristic of the housing market in Portland.

Fish and the Fair Housing Council have come under fire for allegedly lacking a plan to pursue enforcement against landlords until prompted by media coverage, while Fish has insisted that he "always intended to pursue enforcement against select landlords in the audit process."

BOLI is the enforcement arm for Fair Housing complaints in Oregon. Traditionally, the process has been complaint-driven. 2010 was the first time that the City of Portland funded its own audit, and it seems that there was some ambiguity at the onset as to what would be done with the audit results. Moloy Good, the director of the Fair Housing Council--the government-funded non-profit organization that conducted the audit--recommended before the testing that the results be used solely as a part of fact-finding for the Analysis of Impediments described above, rather than turned over to BOLI investigators for enforcement.

This discussion of who intended what, when, will continue, but I think it is critical that we focus on the overall state of fair housing compliance in Portland and throughout Oregon. Fish's action plan includes some new, constructive elements. Fish calls for taking steps to make it easier for renters to understand their rights, and to know the process for filing a complaint if they feel they are the victims of discrimination. He calls for annual audits, with results released to the public. Fish also includes, importantly, specific language committing the city to the development and preservation of more affordable family-sized units. A lack of larger affordable units has played a critical role in the displacement of more than 10,000 people of color from inner Portland neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010, on top of many thousands displaced in the 1990s.

Commissioner Fish's plan strengthens the city's overall effort, relative to past years. However, to really put the full power of the city and state of Oregon behind Fair Housing efforts, we should directly tie Fair Housing compliance to eligibility for hundreds of millions of dollars in affordable housing subsidies and property tax abatements. In Portland, affordable housing subsidies primarily come from resources like the Federal CDBG block grant, PDC urban renewal spending, and low income tax credits from the state. These dollars are awarded as gap-financing in what is typically a highly competitive process, to close the gap between what rents can provide and what is necessary to make a project viable. Typically, property tax abatements are included as well, and in a high percentage of cases, systems development charges (SDCs) waivers and/or transit oriented development (TOD) waivers play a role, too.

The state of Oregon and its local governments should include Fair Housing compliance in the scoring of these applications for competitive housing dollars, along with more aggressive criteria to link housing funding to school enrollment and other important community factors. The process should also be far more transparent, and open to public review and comment. Much like the state's approach to the Construction Contractors Board, citizens should be able to easily review the compliance records of developers, landlords and property management firms.

Similarly, because of the preponderance of problems with some landlords failing to provide safe, decent rental housing in spite of frequent tenant complaints, the track record of owners and property management firms in complying with building codes should be a meaningful factor in considering the awarding or continuation of various forms of public subsidy. This information should also be easily available to the public.

These tools to strongly link compliance with eligibility to access public funding should be part of a spectrum of efforts that includes education, partnership, and enforcement--with emphasis on adequate funding for fielding complaints at the local level and for the state's investigative unit at BOLI. Not every landlord tries to access these funds, but plenty do, and enough money is at stake that it will get their attention and better ensure everyone is guaranteed basic fairness and protection under the law.

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    Great post on an issue I'm hoping stays on the city's radar.

    I want to take a second to echo your comment on the lack of large-family housing, specifically in the Portland area. Only about 15% of Portland's housing stock is comprised of 4-bedroom or larger units; not all of that is even affordable housing. When families are already restricted in terms of the dwelling units they can occupy, the effects of fair housing violations like those in FHCO's audit test and gentrification are painfully magnified.

    I'm thrilled to see the city commit to expanding family-sized options both in the fair housing plan and the AI report, and I'm looking forward to seeing that commitment turn into tangible action.

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    I think the results of the housing audit are an embarrassment and disgrace, and I'm glad Fish is pursuing it. I hope that regular audits combined with private legal action will promote changewg t

    What is the basis for saying an inadequate supply of large-unit housing contributed to gentrification in North Portland? The stats I've seen on household size by race don't seem to support that.

    I thought the "name and shame" approach was much more effective, especially if combined with civil litiagation.

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    This is a good article, much better than the O's recent articles, and I say that both as a 20-year board member of FHCO and as a 30 year advocate at the local and state levels for tenant rights and for affordable housing. Unfortunately the main recommendation – to not allocate affordable housing money or subsidy to those cities which score poorly on fair housing tests – is not well thought through. First off, all cities likely will score poorly on fair housing audits; Ashland did, and it and Portland are among our most progressive cities. And if we punish cities which do fair housing audits, few will do them in the future, and we won't learn what's really ahppening on the ground. Most significant, though, is that punishing "bad cities" by withholding affordable housing funding punishes the very people we want to help, by preventing more affordable housing, and does not punish those “bad cities," if there are any, which don’t care about fair housing, since they are also unlikely to care about affordable housing. But I like the transparency recommendation in state and local funding. Affordable housing advocates are working with the state on that issue.

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      John, thanks for the compliments and the critique. My intent was not to deny cities as a whole the ability to obtain subsidy, but rather factor fair housing compliance into the evaluations of individual landlords and property management firms seeking subsidy from various sources.

      Portland's internal allocation of CDBG and urban renewal funds, or its decisions on property tax abatement or SDC waivers, are self-contained and shouldn't limit overall housing funding. However, I can appreciate the concern that self-auditing and self-reporting would have the effect of steering state tax credits to areas showing little regard for fair housing compliance.

      Given the influence--at least in Portland--that the housing commissioner can have over which city projects compete well for state housing tax credits, I can see some internal local guidelines helping with prioritization. Not sure how best to address your concerns from an OHCS perspective. You make a good point.

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