GRAND RAPIDS — Fair housing organizations across Michigan recently received $2.1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help fight housing discrimination.
The HUD funding was part of a total $40.8 million distributed nationally through the department’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program. The grants are meant to help victims of housing discrimination and to educate housing providers about fair housing laws.
In West Michigan, the Fair Housing Center of Southwest Michigan in Kalamazoo received $334,330, and the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan in Grand Rapids received a $125,000 grant and a three-year $360,000 grant.
“It’s competitive, so we have gotten this funding consistently for years, but because you have to compete, you just never know,” said Fair Housing Center of West Michigan Executive Director Nancy Haynes. “Michigan did really well, the state will be well-served.”
With a lack of fair housing centers north of Grand Rapids, Haynes said the organization extends its reach to Northern Michigan.
“This grant allows us to be there on-call as fair housing experts,” Haynes said. “We try to really offer that expertise, and (adequate funding) allows us to. Instead of sitting back and being reactive, this grant allows us to be more proactive. Also, when we have adequate funding like this, we don’t have to rely on litigation to fund our organization.”
As of this year, there is no longer a $300,000 funding cap for HUD to award organizations to investigate claims of housing discrimination, Haynes said.
“That’s really important because that had been the same amount for a long time and our work hasn’t lessened, it’s become more complex,” she said.
The center takes complaints of housing discrimination and also launches its own investigations based on national trends. Landlords and property owners also use the center as a resource to ask questions about how to comply with fair housing practices.
The three most frequent complaints Haynes’ organization receives are about disability status, familial status and race.
As the population ages, they are seeing more disability complaints, Haynes said. Common disability complaints are also related to renters with emotional support animals that conflict with a landlord’s no-pet rule. Navigating emotional support animals is confusing on both the renter and landlord side, Haynes said.
During the pandemic, Haynes is worried that certain cases of housing discrimination will be on the rise.
“When the market has higher vacances, people are more willing to rent to people who are different than them,” she said. “But when the market gets tighter, sometimes personal preferences and biases get in the way of making the right choice.”
As eviction moratoriums lift, Haynes also suspects that people who are most at risk of losing their homes — single women and women with children — will be strapped for cash and could be more likely to face situations of sexual harassment from landlords and property owners.
Sexual harassment is a fair housing issue when a landlord or property owner waives a fee or accepts late rent in exchange for sexual favors. Most people do not realize it is a fair housing issue, Haynes said.
“Oftentimes people who contact us about something else and have no idea that they were a victim of sexual harassment, but through our intake process they share more of their story and realize what’s going on,” Haynes said.
On the outreach side, which is funded by the $125,000 grant, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan in Grand Rapids partners with various groups including The Diatribe Inc. for programming in schools, and the Grand Rapids Urban League.
“Where you live impacts every other aspect of your life,” Haynes said. “I have been advocating for making sure that the COVID-19 housing related provisions are fair and equitable.”