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Mass fair housing groups receive $1.6 million from HUD

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded $1.6 million in grants to four Massachusetts groups working to reduce housing discrimination. The grants are part of $38.3 million awarded nationwide through HUD’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program.

“No one should be denied the opportunity to live where they want because of how they look, their faith, whether they have children or because they have a disability,” HUD’s New England Regional Administrator Barbara Fields said in a statement. “These grants will help us continue our efforts to educate the public and housing industry about their housing rights and responsibilities.”

In New England, HUD takes more than 1,000 housing discrimination complaints each year, according to Susan Forward, director of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity for the HUD New England Region. The most common complaints are in the areas of disability and familial status, she said, including landlords who illegally discourage or refuse to rent to families with young children because of lead paint issues. Landlords are required to test pre-1978 dwellings for lead and to have a unit deleaded when children under six reside in it. But instead, many try to avoid deleading by making the unit unavailable to families.

The HUD grants will help fair housing centers, nonprofit organizations and university groups to conduct educational programs for landlords and tenants on fair housing laws and create fair housing internships for students. Funds will also support active investigative work such as scanning apartment listings for discriminatory wording and conducting “matched-pair testing” in which trained testers make inquiries about apartment rentals and loan pre-approvals to detect unequal treatment based on race, national origin, religion, disability, familial status and other protected classes.

“Housing discrimination is still a sad reality in 2013,” said Meris Bergquist, executive director of the Holyoke-based Housing Discrimination Project Inc., also known as the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center. The organization serves a large swath of Western Massachusetts, including the Springfield area, currently ranked No. 1 among metro areas nationally for white/Latino segregation and 22nd in white/African American segregation.

“Quite often it happens that someone with a Latino surname or an accent will call about an apartment and never be called back. We’ve conducted testing that shows that,” Bergquist said. “Or someone black or Latino will be told a property is taken, but yet the property is still on the market for weeks afterward.”

The Housing Discrimination Project received a $325,000 HUD grant. Part of the money will go toward recruitment of testers to uncover discriminatory practices. Where problems are found, the organization will try to negotiate settlements that provide for broad compensatory action such as training, affirmative advertising, and active monitoring. When appropriate, complaints will be filed with HUD, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination or in court.

The grant will also help create a new housing mobility program, in partnership with the Holyoke Housing Authority, to assist Section 8 tenants in moving from low-opportunity to high-opportunity areas, Bergquist said.

The three other Massachusetts grant recipients are the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, the Suffolk University Law School Housing Discrimination Testing Program and Community Legal Aid Inc. of Worcester.

The Fair Housing Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on April 11, 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing based on race, color, religion or national origin. With additions over the years, the federal law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, disability and familial status, meaning that it is illegal to discriminate against families with children under age 18.

Massachusetts law provides additional protections, barring discrimination for marital status, age, gender identity and expression, military or veteran status, ancestry, public assistance recipiency and genetic information.

Last April, the Violence Against Women Act added protection at the federal and state levels for victims of domestic violence or stalking.

People who believe they are the victims of housing discrimination should contact HUD New England Regional Office at (800) 827-5005.