Has Virginia done enough to end housing discrimination?

Amid the frenzied wave of legislation Democrats have proposed to take control of all branches of Virginia state government in 2020, a surprising share of invoices were dedicated to ending discrimination in housing.

LGBTQ + people, veterans and those who pay their rent in part with accommodation choice checks or some other form of government aid were all consecrated in July of the same year as “protected classes” – demographic groups as the Fair Housing Act in Virginia explicitly prohibits owners from discriminating. Almost a year and a half later, the attorney general’s fair housing workload has quadrupled, but has Virginia done enough to end the discrimination?

The purpose of protections

All Americans are entitled to a basic level of protection against discrimination in housing under the Federal Fair Housing Act which defines seven nationally protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, disability , family status, and gender (what recent Democratic administrations have inherently asserted includes sexual orientation and gender identity). Citing the many shortcomings of this list, some states have dedicated additional protected classes. For example, Virginia has long extended protection against discrimination to people aged 55 and over based on their age.

In 2020, the General Assembly added four additional protected classes to Commonwealth Fair Housing Laws: sexual orientation, gender identity, source of funds, and veteran status (changed to ‘military status’). »Wider in 2021). State officials often cite a bill that prevents communities from denying permits for affordable housing as the 13th class protected from Virginia. The legislature has also adopted policies preventing discrimination in housing against victims of domestic violence but not by establishing it as a protected class.

“Housing discrimination is one of those issues where when it happens there’s no SWAT team or anything rushing around,” said Kate Scott, executive director of Center for Equal Rights – an organization for the defense of civil rights against discrimination. “Governments are investing limited resources in enforcing housing discrimination, so these new protections give us more opportunities to be aggressive in eradicating housing discrimination. There are several ways to litigate these discrimination cases under federal law, but it’s always easier when states have specific protections in place.

Across the Potomac in DC, where the Equal Rights Center is based, residents enjoy 19 protected classes. Thanks to new protections adopted by Democrats over the past two years, Virginia now ranks among the top six states with the most extensive fair housing laws. Only Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts go further.

Tell tenants

Even before the adoption of these new protected classes, the attorney general’s team would attempt to protect broader groups from discrimination by showing “disparate impact”. For example, denying housing choice voucher holders has a disproportionate impact on people of color. “We used to get claims and we would investigate them based on other classes like gender or race, but disparate impact cases are hard to investigate and prove because you are looking for data that is sometimes difficult. to get, “said Liz Hayes – a state administrator Fair Housing Office.

Since the expanded protected classes became official, the work of his office has quadrupled. In the past 18 months, the Fair Housing Office has received 55 complaints alleging discrimination in housing. So far, 19 of them have been accepted for investigation by the state attorney general. Civil rights office. The vast majority of complaints and cases against landlords (40 and 16, respectively) focus on a source of income discrimination in which landlords turn down tenants for paying part of their rent with vouchers. or other government assistance.

Fair housing advocates like Christie Marra from Virginia Poverty Law Center I believe these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. “The vast majority of tenants just don’t know about these protections,” she said. “There are some things that are so ingrained in our tenant culture that tenants don’t question the legitimacy of illegal actions, like landlords who rely on a credit score or ask for a copy of your criminal record. There are all of these myths that have developed over the past decade that drive decisions made by renters and allow landlords to charge more, as rental housing is now seen as a prize you earn instead of a service that should be provided.

To help publicize the new protected classes and how homeowners can avoid engaging in discriminatory business practices, the Virginia Real Estate Board this year released a guidance document About that. “Among other things, the guidance document tells housing providers how to calculate down payments based on the tenant’s share of that payment,” said Helen Hardiman, deputy attorney general and policy adviser in the Civil Rights Office. “There has been work to proactively explain this to housing providers to avoid more cases, but it’s never enough – at least in the beginning.”

To Shivaughn Ferguson, the director of fair housing for Equal accommodation possibilities – a non-profit housing advocacy organization, the impact of the new laws and the state’s efforts to spread the word have changed the game: “As a member of the LGBTQ community myself, I understand challenges. There has been so much mixed communication on whether we have rights at the state level, the federal level, or not at all. However, between April and September [of 2021] we received 200 allegations of discrimination in fair housing. The pandemic has certainly increased blatant discrimination, but people now know that there are these additional protections. “

Extend law enforcement?

Although formal complaints of housing discrimination have quadrupled over the past year and a half, no additional staff or resources are currently planned for the Fair Housing Office or the Commonwealth Civil Rights Office. However, a number of non-profit organizations are trying to supplement the capacity of the state.

“Homeowners sometimes see discrimination as a $ 1,000 to $ 2,000 line item that they can easily digest,” Ferguson said. “I’m here to say it’s not a thing anymore. If you engage in discrimination, you are going to face consequences that will not only make you think twice, but fundamentally change your business model. “

In November, Attorney General Mark Herring filed the very first “Model and practice” prosecution for discrimination using evidence gathered by the Housing Right Initiative. Thirteen of the 14 cases filed by the Attorney General involve 29 individual defendants in the city counties of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield. The owners and property managers involved in the lawsuits own and operate thousands of units across Virginia.

“For the discrimination cases we brought to Attorney General Mark Herring, we indiscriminately investigated every broker and landlord in Richmond who listed apartments that a Section 8 voucher holder could potentially rent out,” explained Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative – a New York-based nonprofit that investigates real estate fraud. “What makes our model unique is that we don’t just look at a few real estate companies, but entire real estate sectors. Our goal is to open as many apartments as possible for families with rental assistance to create an affordable price and neighborhood choice.

Those early court victories laid bare the need to expand anti-discrimination protections, but that doesn’t mean housing advocates aren’t worried that the next attorney general – Republican Jason Miyares – will downsize the existing one (without doubt underfunded) state enforcement of protected classes.

“People have a feeling that a change could happen,” said Scott, “but these protections should not be politicized because housing is integral to the well-being of the community and the family. These are basic and common sense protections that help people find housing that meets their needs without being discriminated against. Enforcing these policies requires the help of a wide range of people, so I hope the coalition exists to ensure these protections stay in place.

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