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Advocates Praise Veto of Inclusionary Zoning Preemption Bill, Look Forward to Local Action

Posted on 29. May, 2018 by

Baton Rouge—On Saturday, Governor John Bel Edwards vetoed SB 462, a bill that would have banned cities and parishes from using zoning rules to create housing that is affordable to the average worker. Housing advocates, the City of New Orleans, the City of Baton Rouge, and the Louisiana Municipal Association, among others, all opposed the bill.

While Sen. Danny Martiny sponsored SB 462 in this year’s legislative session, Sen. Conrad Appel carried identical legislation in 2017 that also failed. In the Greater New Orleans area, where both senators are from, high housing prices are pushing many working families out to the suburbs. A family must make $49,360–significantly more than the median household income of $37,000–to afford a modest three-bedroom apartment in the metro area.

In over 800 cities across the country, municipalities use inclusionary zoning policies—which SB 462 would have banned—to ensure workers can continue to live close to their jobs. The policies ensure that a percentage of new housing units are priced to be available to the average worker and offer real estate developers economic incentives in return. In Louisiana, such a policy would benefit hospitality workers, firefighters, teachers, and others who all make average salaries of below $40,000 per year. 

In his veto message, the Governor encouraged local governments to take advantage of the policy and implement inclusionary zoning policies in the near future. In 2017, the City of New Orleans began to seriously consider inclusionary zoning, known locally as the Smart Housing Mix policy. Mayor Cantrell and a number of Councilmembers committed their support for the Smart Housing Mix during the campaign season. Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s transition plan also suggested the City-Parish explore the policy. 

Throughout the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, a single real estate developer group led the charge to strip inclusionary zoning powers away from local governments. During committee hearings, housing advocates pointed out that real estate developers have benefited from millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded incentives, but continue to stand in staunch opposition to local solutions like the Smart Housing Mix. 

“We’re grateful to the Governor for choosing the working families who make our cities run over wealthy real estate developers,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC). “Now we look forward to working with local officials to pass and implement the Smart Housing Mix policy so that workers can continue to live and thrive in our cities,” she continued. 

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The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) is a statewide, private nonprofit civil rights organization with offices in New Orleans. GNOFHAC is dedicated to eliminating housing discrimination and furthering equal housing opportunities through education, outreach, advocacy, and enforcement of fair housing laws across Louisiana. The activities described in this release were privately funded. 

Legislature Passes New Law Penalizing Bad Landlords and Assisting Renters in Recovering Security Deposits

Posted on 14. May, 2018 by

Baton Rouge—Last Friday, Senate Bill 466 cleared its last legislative hurdle when it passed the Louisiana House. SB 466 finally provides a real chance of recovering security deposits from negligent landlords to the 1.5 million Louisianans who rent. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) led the advocacy efforts for this change because most renters never expect to see their deposit again, even when they do everything right. Under current law, landlords only face a slap on the wrist for unlawfully keeping deposits.

During the bill’s first hearing, LSU law student Jourdan Curet explained that when the management began to let her Baton Rouge townhome fall into disrepair, she gave notice and asked for her security deposit back after moving. Her unit was still in good condition when she left, but after multiple requests—including with the help of her mother’s law firm—she had still not seen a dollar of her $500 deposit. “Even if I took my landlord to small claims court and won, I’m sure he’d continue keeping deposits because most students don’t have the knowledge, time, or resources to file in small claims and the penalty was negligible for him either way,” said Curet. “I know I have access to more resources than most renters, so I’m elated that we’ve finally created some fairness in this part of the law,” she continued.

Photo: Jourdan Curet posing with a fake check for what she would have spent her deposit it on, if it had been returned.

SB 466, carried by Sen. Ed Price of Gonzales, increases the penalty to bring it into line with national standards. When the new law goes into effect on August 1, 2018, renters who win their case can recover three times as much as typically awarded under current law. For a Louisiana renter who spends roughly $800 on a security deposit, the amount recovered from a negligent landlord would increase to $2,400.

“A higher penalty might have created some incentive for my landlord to return my deposit,” said Aimee Struble, a self-employed house painter in New Orleans. “Instead, it took being lucky enough to find pro-bono counsel and two years to get to court to finally recover any damages.” Struble was renting from a large real estate developer and had to leave after a roof leak and mold damaged most of her belongings.

Photo: Aimee Struble posing with a fake check for what she would have spent her deposit it on, if it had been returned.

This new law is the culmination of four years of work at the Legislature, starting with a 2014 Senate resolution that acknowledged renters in Louisiana have few rights and called for a comparison of state landlord-tenant law to national standards.

Further study found that Louisiana security deposit law had not been updated since 1985 and was notably out of step with surrounding states. After initial opposition by landlord lobbying groups in 2017 and during the 2018 legislative session, GNOFHAC, legal experts, and landlord groups agreed to increase penalties for landlords who do not follow the law. The final bill passed out of committees in both houses with the unanimous support of lawmakers.

“Loyola Law Clinic routinely represents low-income renters whose landlords have stolen their security deposits. Even after winning a lawsuit, the most renters usually receive back under the old law is the stolen deposit. For bad actors, that was no disincentive. Low-income people cannot easily access attorneys or the courts. Without deposit funds, there is a struggle to secure new housing. The new law is a step in the right direction for Louisiana renters and for our communities,” said Davida Finger, a Loyola University College of Law professor who helped craft the reforms in the bill.

“Anyone who has rented in Louisiana knows the law is stacked against you. As families across the state see increases in college tuition, health insurance, and other expenses, we’re grateful to see the state offer this measure of economic relief to Louisiana’s 1.5 million renters,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of GNOFHAC. The results of GNOFHAC’s own survey showed that most renters would have used their deposits for their next apartment or to pay off bills, had the deposits been returned.

 

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) is a statewide, private nonprofit civil rights organization with offices in New Orleans. GNOFHAC is dedicated to eliminating housing discrimination and furthering equal housing opportunities through education, outreach, advocacy, and enforcement of fair housing laws across Louisiana. The activities described in this release were privately funded. 

How you can get involved

Posted on 30. Apr, 2018 by

Today is the last day of Fair Housing Month, but our work for fair housing continues throughout the year. Here’s how you can get involved and continue to fight discrimination and segregation across Louisiana:

  1. Donate to GNOFHAC on Give NOLA Day 

    On Tuesday, May 1st, every dollar donated to New Orleans non-profits through givenola.org will be boosted by extra funds from the Give NOLA Lagniappe Fund. The goal of Give NOLA Day is to inspire the community to come together to support the work of local nonprofit organizations. GNOFHAC is the only full-service fair housing center in Louisiana, and your donation will fight for those who’ve been harassed, turned down or evicted because of who they are. Schedule your donation now!

  2. Sign-up for action alerts

    Our action page can help you stay engaged on all the issues that matter to you.  Please use this page to find and track legislation, look up your lawmaker, register to vote, and access tools you need to build a more inclusive community. Subscribe to our email list to stay up-to-date on GNOFHAC policy initiatives and community events.

  3. Become a tester

    Testers, also known as “mystery shoppers,” are people in the community who take on the role of a perspective homeowner or renter to help fair housing centers investigate discrimination. Testing involves using people with similar profiles, but who differ in one protected characteristic, such as race or family status. Testers need a flexible schedule and they are provided with a small stipend. 

  4. Invite GNOFHAC to do a fair housing training at your organization or school

    GNOFHAC provides trainings tailored to the needs of your organization. Participants of these trainings include landlords, real estate agents, management staff, mental health service providers, tenants, neighborhood associations, and many more. We also conduct fair housing workshops for students in grades K-8. Learn more about The Fair Housing Five and the Haunted House, GNOFHAC’s original children’s book that tells the story of kids who take action in their neighborhood in response to a landlord who is discriminating. It is designed to initiate conversations between parents, caregivers, teachers and children about housing discrimination, systemic inequality, and the important role that we all have in ending both.

     

Our 6th Annual Community Crawfish Boil

Posted on 26. Apr, 2018 by

Our 6th Annual Community Crawfish Boil was a success! Thank you to everyone who joined us in celebrating Fair Housing Month and the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. We appreciate all of your support! 

 

Fair Housing and the Disability Rights Movement

Posted on 25. Apr, 2018 by

Yoshiko and Justin Dart lead march. Photo credit: Tom Olin. Source: www.historybyzim.com/2013/09/capitol-crawl-americans-with-disabilities-act-of-1990/

There are 56.7 million Americans with disabilities.  People with disabilities are our neighbors, our loved ones, and our family members and just like everyone else they deserve to lead healthy, happy lives free from discrimination. There are many civil rights laws that protect the 19% of the US population living with a disability today, and we wouldn’t have those protections were it not for the tireless work of the disability rights movement.

All marginalized groups in the U.S. have had to fight for their civil rights and the fight for disability rights is no exception. Disability activists have long fought for equal access and against segregation, isolation and abuse. The 1970s saw a surge of organizing, with activists mobilized into self-advocacy groups, such as DREDF (Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund), ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation, later changed to Americans Disabled Attendant Programs Today), and the CIL (Center for Independent Living). Activists employed a variety of tactics from legislative advocacy and bringing lawsuits to direct actions such as the 25 day takeover of a federal building in San Francisco, blocking intersections to protest the lack of accessible public transportation, and the “Capitol Crawl” when more than 60 activists left their wheelchairs and mobility devices to climb the 83 steps to the U.S. Capitol Building to demand the passage of the ADA.

Organizers were fighting to pass – and then pushing to enforce – landmark laws such as Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which bans disability discrimination in any federally funded program. In 1988, a broad-based coalition succeeded in amending the Fair Housing Act to protect people with disabilities, outlawing discrimination based on disability and requiring that reasonable modifications and accommodations be granted and that new multi-family housing be built to certain accessibility standards. Finally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations and government services, was passed in 1990.

Despite the legal protections now in place for people with disabilities in housing, discrimination is still pervasive.  According to the National Fair Housing Alliance, 55% of all Fair Housing complaints in 2017 were on the basis of disability. If you think you’ve witnessed or experienced discrimination in any form by a landlord, property manager, realtor, mortgage officer or other housing provider, call the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center at 877-445-2100. Help is free and confidential.

Red Lines and Keep Out Signs: 300 Years of Discrimination, Divestment & Displacement In New Orleans

Posted on 24. Apr, 2018 by

Amidst the excitement of celebrating New Orleans’ tricentennial, GNOFHAC is taking a look at 300 years of housing policy and housing segregation in New Orleans.

New Orleans is a special place that is rich with culture and tradition but, like many cities in the United States, New Orleans also has deep racial divides. The Data Center’s new article, “Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk,” lays out how the segregation that we see today is rooted in discriminatory housing policies and practices that are as old as the city.

From only allowing wealthy white settlers to build above sea level (therefore denying African American communities access to housing that doesn’t face environmental risk), to racially discriminatory zoning policies, to restrictive covenants that stated in the deeds for homes that they could only be sold to white families, New Orleans’ history helps us understand the persistence of housing segregation today.

Policy decisions made during the recovery from Hurricane Katrina further deepened these inequalities. New Orleans had a unique opportunity to reverse many of the long-standing patterns of residential racial segregation using the billions of recovery dollars the city received to rebuild. However, instead local, state and federal policy makers chose policies that “repeated or amplified existing patterns of separation and inequality.” One such example was the Road Home program which based grant amounts on pre-storm market value rather than the actual cost to rebuild. As a result, residents in majority white, wealthier neighborhoods were able rebuild while African American homeowners with lower property values found it difficult to return home.

Now, as we welcome a new city council and mayor to office, we must continue to push for policies that say no to segregation and encourage inclusion.

To learn more, join GNOFHAC for a panel discussion about the findings of the new Data Center report, Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk, on April 26th from 6-8pm at Propeller Incubator, 4035 Washington Ave.

Sex Discrimination and the Fair Housing Act

Posted on 22. Apr, 2018 by

The second wave of the Women’s Movement gained significant traction in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Activists fought on multiple fronts, including for legal equality based on sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 made sex-based discrimination unlawful in employment and education, respectively. These two laws influenced the eventual inclusion of sex in the protections guaranteed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.

When the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was originally passed, it prohibited discrimination in all housing transactions based on race, color, religion, and national origin. It was not until 1974 that sex was added to the list of protected classes. Before then, sex discrimination was widespread in rentals, sales, mortgage lending and other transactions.

Despite legal protections, however, sex discrimination continues. Banks have been found to deny mortgage applications from home-buyers who are on maternity leave based on assumptions about the borrowers’ plans and future income. This type of discrimination is not only illegal under the Fair Housing Act, but also under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Predatory loans, those that are designed to fail, are also most frequently targeted at women of color.

If you believe that you or someone you know has experienced discrimination, you can file a complaint here or call GNOFHAC at (877) 445-2100 for free and confidential help.

National Insurer Settles Case Alleging Discrimination Against Housing Choice Voucher Participants

Posted on 19. Apr, 2018 by

New Orleans—National insurer Covington Special Insurance Company (Covington) has agreed to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit filed by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) and a local landlord. The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana in September 2017, alleged that Covington discriminated on the basis of race, sex, and familial status by denying liability insurance to New Orleans landlords who accept tenants utilizing Housing Choice Vouchers (informally known as “Section 8” vouchers). 

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program provides housing subsidies to low-income families seeking housing in the private rental market. The complaint alleged that the Covington’s policy had the effect of making it harder for HCV households—who are disproportionately African American, female-headed, and families with children—to access housing. The complaint also alleged that the insurer’s discriminatory policies disproportionately affected predominately African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans, where HCV households are highly concentrated. 

GNOFHAC and Dr. Andre Baugh were plaintiffs in the litigation. The litigation arose after Covington Specialty Insurance Company canceled Dr. Baugh’s liability policy because he disclosed that HCV families occupied five of his eight rental units. A local agent explained to Dr. Baugh that Covington was “not in the business of doing Section 8.” Covington is based in New Hampshire and operates as a subsidiary the Alleghany Corporation, a national publicly traded investment company with a focus on property and casualty insurance. After finally securing insurance from another insurer at a higher rate, Dr. Baugh contacted GNOFHAC, which undertook significant public education and outreach efforts to counteract the insurers’ discriminatory policies.

The complaint alleged that Covington’s discriminatory policy was based on stereotypes about voucher holders, rather than any particular risk analysis. Despite such negative stereotypes, New Orleans data shows HCV households are far less transient than market-rate renters. According to U.S. Census and HUD data, 22% of all New Orleans renter households moved in the last year compared to only 7% of HCV families, who stay in their units for an average of seven years.

As a result of the settlement, Covington will stop considering individuals’ source of income when determining pricing or eligibility for property or commercial liability insurance sold to owners of private rental properties. In addition, Covington will no longer ask owners whether they rent to HCV households. Covington agreed to pay $160,000 to compensate plaintiffs for their damages and attorneys fees. 

“Stereotypes and assumptions are simply not a valid reason to perpetuate segregation or deny families housing,” said GNOFHAC Executive Director, Cashauna Hill. “We commend Dr. Baugh for coming forward with this complaint and encourage anyone else who suspects they may have been a victim of housing discrimination to contact the Fair Housing Action Center.”

Plaintiffs separately reached a settlement with Covington’s local broker, Hull & Company, which issued and administered Dr. Baugh’s policy with Covington.

The Plaintiffs were represented by Relman Dane and Colfax PLLC, GNOFHAC’s Legal Director, Elizabeth Owen, and Galen Hair of Scott, Vicknair, Hair & Checki.

New Database Reveals an American Eviction Crisis

Posted on 19. Apr, 2018 by

San Francisco has passed laws to help teachers and families with school-aged children avoid evictions during the school year.

GNOFHAC fights for fair, affordable housing for all. Most people can get behind a mission like this – who doesn’t think that people and families should have access to housing they can pay for without breaking the bank, in safe neighborhoods with amenities like good schools and supermarkets that sell fresh food? The unfortunate reality, however, is that many people don’t have access to affordable housing at all, let alone housing in areas that provide opportunities for their families. More than twenty percent of Americans spend more than half of their monthly income on rent and utilities, with a quarter of those families spending more than seventy percent of their income on housing costs.

When a large portion of an individual’s or family’s income is allocated to housing, any additional, unplanned costs (like fixing a broken-down car or going to the hospital) can be devastating. Those unable to pay their rent are often evicted, a process which can have spiraling consequences: children must move schools; parents lose their jobs and face challenges applying for new ones without a permanent address; families lose access to food stamps and health benefits when they no longer reside at the address these notices are sent to.  

In short, while poverty is a common cause of evictions, evictions are also a cause of poverty, creating a feedback loop that can be almost impossible to escape.

A new database from Princeton University called the Eviction Lab, compiles the first ever public dataset of evictions in America going back to 2000, illustrating through numbers, and interactive graphs how America is facing an eviction crisis. Sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in 2016 at a rate of four per minute. In Louisiana, where the eviction rate clocks in at 2.54% (0.3% above the national average), almost 36 evictions happen per day. While eviction rates in New Orleans are below the national average, they jump to 5.49% in Slidell and 6.45% in Baton Rouge, which is ranked 19th nationally in terms of evictions.

When families are evicted, no one wins. In order to reduce the number of evictions in the United States, policy makers should make affordable housing a priority. If you’d like to learn more about this issue, check out the Eviction Lab website and Matthew Desmond’s revealing book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

Immigration Status and the Fair Housing Act: What You Need to Know

Posted on 17. Apr, 2018 by

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968 protects people from discrimination when they look to buy, rent, or secure financing for housing. The FHA prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children. The FHA applies to everyone in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. If a landlord refuses to rent to someone, charges a higher price, or offers different terms on a mortgage because that person belongs to one of those protected groups, that is illegal discrimination regardless of immigration status. It is also illegal to request additional documents from a person based on their race, national origin, or membership in another protected group. This means that a landlord can request a credit check on potential tenants to make sure they’ll be able to pay rent, but only if they perform that check on every potential tenant, not just ones of a particular race or gender. Similarly, landlords are within their rights to ask for identity related documents, but only if they are requesting them from all applicants.

If you believe you are the victim of housing discrimination and you are undocumented, you should not hesitate to file a fair housing complaint. The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (the body at the HUD which deals with issues related to the FHA) will not ask about or disclose your immigration status, and neither will the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

What happens if a landlord or neighbor is threatening to report you, a family member, or a friend to ICE in the event that you file a fair housing complaint? Unfortunately, this is where things can get more complicated. It is illegal to threaten or interfere with a person’s exercise of their FHA rights, so the person doing the threatening is breaking the law. However, when immigration authorities are involved, a certain level of apprehension is certainly justifiable.

According to a memorandum by former ICE Director John Morton in 2011, it is “against ICE policy to remove individuals in the midst of a legitimate effort to protect their civil rights or civil liberties” and “to avoid deterring individuals from reporting crimes and from pursuing actions to protect their civil rights, ICE officers, special agents, and attorneys are reminded to exercise all appropriate discretion on a case-by-case basis when making detention and enforcement decisions in the case of victims of crime, witnesses to crime, and individuals pursuing legitimate civil rights complaints.” What this means is that if you are an undocumented victim of a crime, you should be protected from deportation or other legal action taken against you if you report that crime, as long as you yourself don’t have a criminal history.

In today’s political climate regarding immigration, it can be difficult to know how strictly ICE will stick to this policy on a case by case basis. If you come in contact with ICE as a result of reporting an FHA violation, it is important to be clear that you are attempting to protect your civil rights.  Regardless of your immigration status, please do not hesitate to report fair housing violations to GNOFHAC when you see them.