Housing providers in New Castle County learned how to better respect the rights of their tenants and residents this week— during a fair housing workshop held by the state Division of Human Relations.
Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt was there has more on how the Division fights housing discrimination in the state.
Romona Fullman, director for the Division of Human Relations, says Tuesday was a basic fair housing workshop.
“Fair housing 101 as we call it, and it was open to the public. Sometimes when people are parties to a case they are advised when there are public sessions for them to learn and then sometimes we will have private session for them. But our strategy now is to have people learn together. So we will be having at least quarterly trainings open to the public— to property managers and government officials and anyone that wants to better understand the fair housing laws,” said Fullman.
Attendees at this New Castle County workshop included leasing agents, property managers, homeowners’ association representatives – and others considered “housing providers.”
The training outlined ‘protected classes’ under the federal Fair Housing Act— race or color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability. It explained state-level protected classes— including marital status, age, sexual orientation, source of income and gender identity.
The training also asked providers to work through real-life discrimination scenarios Division investigators have encountered.
Dennis Thomson is on the architectural review board for his Homeowners’ Association. He went to the training as part of a conciliation agreement after the association denied a resident’s request to build a ramp.
“We were basing it all based on our own declaration restrictions and the county code, he said. “And as it turns out, the man’s wife was disabled. But we didn’t know that.”
Thomson says Tuesday’s training will help his association play a more proactive role in promoting fair housing.
“Everybody is now going to be a bit more knowledgeable about what this is all about,” he said. “We know now better what questions we’re going to ask.”
Division investigator Inez Hungria says one of the most effective aspects of training is making contact with these housing providers or residents in person.
“I love the relationships it builds,” she said. “So now that he was part of a complaint process, but now he knows who we are. So if something else comes up, he doesn’t have to wait for a complaint to be filed, he can call and say, you know, Inez, I have a scenario with an owner, what can we do?”
Hungria says the most common area of confusion is protections for individuals with disabilities.
“Dealing with persons with disabilities, that comes up a lot,” she said. “Especially when you have these restrictions coming out by municipalities. They’ll say, we do not allow this certain breed or certain animal in our town. And that’s fine. But when a person needs its,” she said. “So it should be allowed.”
She adds that housing discrimination cases happen all over the state, with no particular clustering geographically.
“There is nothing specific that stands out in my head that says this area constantly receives complaints. Now normally when there’s … some type of violation, let’s say persons with disabilities are not getting their accommodations or their modifications granted in an area, or a complex, or within a management company,” she said. “There you may get a few complaints because the management company that’s up above is not allowing these accommodations to take place … Especially if they own property throughout the state ... so then you start looking at a pattern of practice.”
Hungria mentions the Division has noticed a pattern in who might be afraid to report housing discrimination against them.
“Undocumented residents, they tend to be fearful of the law period. But they are free to file their complaint through our agency … So even if someone says, I’m willing to tell you ... what’s going on here, the whos and the whats or the hows, but I don’t want to file a complaint because I’m undocumented, please bring us that information. And we will build that case within the Division and we can actually recommend that the [Human Relations] Commission initiate a complaint. At that point the Commission can take the complaint by themselves without the complainant. We can also, once the complaint is filed, identify other aggrieved individuals that have documentation … that can actually be benefactors too,” said Hungria. “Don’t think that you have to live in that type of housing of be subjected to discrimination in Delaware because you’re undocumented.”
Division Director Romona Fullman points to another reason people may fear reporting housing discrimination.
“The lack of affordable housing. So people hesitate to complain because they need a place to live,” said Fullman. “They don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that living opportunity.
Hungria says the Division is happy to consult with individuals or housing providers for free and without risk of a violation being triggered just from talking with Division staff.
“If on its face it looks like it’s a violation, I will say, yeah, you violated their rights,” said Hungria. “And a lot of times they’ll go back and say, you know what Inez, I’m going to call the tenant and I’m going to fix this. I say, that’s great. Hopefully that resident doesn’t find out before. But we want them to learn.”
“We don’t want to ‘gotcha, gotcha, gotcha,'” said Natalie Fountain, Education and Outreach Coordinator with the Division. “We want them to do the right thing all the time. And so providing guidance and providing education we hope is a way to help them do the right thing all the time.”
But there are consequences for housing providers who engage in discriminatory practices.
Providers can be fined civil penalties ranging from $10,000 and $50,000 if discrimination cases are handled through administrative hearing, or up to $100,000 per violation if brought to Superior Court. That’s on top of damages than can be paid to the aggrieved individual.
“There is a process and there are penalties,” said Fullman. “If you are persisting with doing it the wrong way, if it continues that you are not providing the effective remedies, you may be back before the commission again, the administrative hearing process.”
Several housing providers with Buccini Pollin in Wilmington attended Tuesday’s training.
Roben Cottman is one of their leasing agents.
“Times are always changing, so we need to be relevant on what we can say and what we can’t say, because a lot of things are sensitive these days,” she said.
Inez Hungria adds attending trainings regularly is a good idea for housing providers.
“This fair housing law is a living, breathing document. It’s ever-changing. It’s constantly being added to and constantly being changed. So to get the updates, whether it be one year, two years, three years, it should always be something that’s behind housing providers to say, let me get an update on fair housing just to make sure there are no new things that are coming out … or that HUD implemented that we should be aware of,” she said. “Because in a matter of a year you could be out of compliance by not adding a protected class to your documentation or knowing that there’s another possible violation that could exist.”
Fountain says most Division of Human Relations staff have experienced discrimination, so enforcing fair housing law is personal.
“I have faced discrimination in housing— thirty or so years ago. Blatant discrimination by a housing provider in a new development complex. And did not know what I had dealt with," she said. "If I knew then what I know now I might have gotten a nice big house out of it. Knowledge is power, and so the passion around this is nobody should have to deal with discrimination.”
Division staff encourage anyone who thinks they may have been discriminated against to contact the division.
“Call, go online or come in. And we have offices in each county. We have a website. And we have a toll-free number,” said Fullman.
Fountain added, “877-54-HUMAN.”