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Workshop on US fair housing act stresses equal access for all

he federal Fair Housing Act turned 45 last month, but vigilance, enforcement and education are still needed to ensure full housing access to all.

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

Boston — The federal Fair Housing Act turned 45 last month, but vigilance, enforcement and education are still needed to ensure full housing access to all.

This was the message at “Fair Housing Wrongs and Rights,” a workshop presented April 30 by the Boston Fair Housing Commission (BFHC) and the Boston NAACP Housing Committee as part of the agencies’ observation of Fair Housing Month. About 35 landlords, housing agency representatives and tenants attended the event, held at the Boston NAACP office in Roxbury.

The workshop was led by Dion Irish, executive director of Boston’s Office of Civil Rights, which encompasses the Fair Housing Commission and the Human Rights Commission. He opened with a video that highlighted events leading up to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, including the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. The video emphasized the still “unfinished business” of civil rights.

“So we are here, 45 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act,” Irish said, “and there is still much work to be done.”

Irish said his department investigates and “vigorously enforces” fair housing violations, but that that’s not the only way to combat discrimination.

“We also want to provide education and outreach,” he said, “to be out in the community raising awareness and helping to train housing seekers and housing providers.”

Irish introduced JoAnn Cox, a specialist with the BFHC’s Affirmative Fair Housing Marketing program. This program is charged with actively informing households about available affordable housing outside their neighborhoods and monitoring tenant selection processes and housing advertisements.

Cox said landlords and real estate agents should “think fair housing first” to avoid intentional or accidental discrimination. While it is clearly illegal to refuse housing to people because of their race or national origin, fair housing laws also forbid more subtle attempts to turn away families with children or to “steer” people to certain units or locations.

She showed examples of apartment listings found on craigslist.com that raise red flags with phrases such as “perfect for a single person,” “looking for a quiet mature person 25 or older,” “Section 8 okay but the unit is not deleaded,” and “no Section 8.”

It is illegal to refuse Section 8 rental assistance vouchers simply because a landlord “doesn’t want to deal with Section 8 recipients,” Cox said, or to refuse an application from someone whose income comes from Social Security. It is permissible to refuse anyone who cannot pay the rent — but the right procedure is to provide a standardized application to anyone interested in the unit, and then judge eligibility on uniform criteria such as income, references and background checks.

A workshop attendee reinforced this idea, saying that even bad credit doesn’t necessarily mean someone can’t pay rent; they may have fallen behind on other bills in the past while taking care to never miss rent payments.

The Fair Housing Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on April 11, 1968, prohibited 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 (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.

And in April, the Violence Against Women Act added protection at the federal and state levels for victims of domestic violence or stalking. For instance, victims cannot be evicted because of police calls or restraining orders; they cannot be penalized for breaking a lease to flee an unsafe location; and landlords must comply promptly with requests to change locks.

There are some exceptions to fair housing protections — for instance, in a property with three units or fewer that currently houses an elderly or infirm person, children can be disallowed — but advertisements cannot state such restrictions. People must be allowed to apply, and their eligibility then judged based on facts and legal criteria.

Rather than steering people away from units with lead paint, the law requires owners to delead units for families with children under age 6. It also requires reasonable disability accommodations and/or modifications, such as changing doorknobs for a tenant with arthritis, allowing service animals or installing grab bars in bathrooms.

The most common discrimination complaints the BFHC receives are related to lead paint issues, Section 8 and reasonable accommodation, Cox said.

It is complicated, Cox acknowledged, to know what can be forbidden (smoking? pets? someone with a prior eviction?) or requested (deleading when a tenant becomes pregnant?) and even what questions can be asked of an applicant. Innocent questions from real estate agents about marital status, ages of children or national origin, even if asked in friendly conversation, could later be seen as discriminatory if the apartment is not offered, she said.

Cox and Irish encouraged housing seekers, providers or advocates who have questions or complaints to contact the Civil Rights Office at 617-635-2500. More information can also be found online at www.cityofboston.gov/civilrights/fhc/.