In early August, it will be back-to-school time for the people who enforce the nation's fair housing laws.
The Housing and Urban Development Department announced this month that it would set up a school to train housing investigators from around the country in subjects such as civil rights law and investigation techniques.
"We are excited to provide a national standard of testing," said Carolyn Y. Peoples, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity. "People aren't just coming for training and walking away, but tested, so when they go back to their office or agency they will really show what they have learned."
The program, which would require 200 hours of classes, is aimed at the 500 full-time investigators who work for about 100 state and local housing agencies that HUD funds through its Federal Housing Assistance Programs. The classes will be held at Howard University. Some housing commissioners and managers also will be trained, although it is not mandatory for them.
According to Peoples, national standards for fair-housing-enforcement training have never before been set.
Floyd O. May, the general deputy assistant secretary in HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said the standards will "eliminate a lot of the unevenness we are experiencing in our cases across the country."
HUD has budgeted $1 million for start-up costs this year and has requested $2.5 million for the next budget year.
Matthew D. Miko, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, whose housing office is among those that will be included in the training, said he is "very excited about the academy; the curriculum looks excellent."
Beverly L. Watts, the executive director for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, will be on the academy's adjunct faculty. She said the hope in the housing-enforcement community is that the academy will train investigators better and serve as a conduit for sharing best practices and information.
HUD should step up enforcement of fair housing laws, and training is part of that, said Shanna L. Smith, president and chief executive of the nonprofit National Fair Housing Alliance.
"We estimate that there are about 4 million race and national origin [instances of discrimination] going on annually and HUD is only handling a few thousand," Smith said.
HUD and its partner agencies received more that 8,000 complaints last year, May said.
Smith's Washington-based group started a training school three years ago. She said fair-housing laws are complicated and training must be comprehensive. "If you are going to do fair housing, you have to know fair housing. You have to know a lot of information. . . . You have to become an expert in the areas of rental sales, mortgage lending, homeowners insurance and harassment in fair housing, both racial and sexual harassment. . . . These are very complex issues. I have been doing this 20 years and I still go to training."
Smith said she worries that HUD's training won't go far enough. She also questioned how the department can create a school without consulting people who have been teaching similar classes. "I think if HUD would collaborate with us and IAOHRA [International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies], we could create that school. I think it is very sad that this Office of Fair Housing won't collaborate with us."
May said the international rights group did participate by recommending courses. He said the new training will be different from what HUD has offered in the past. Generally, he said, training has been conducted for large groups, often 300 people or more. In the new program, each class will have no more than 25 students.
"The training academy will be better able to ensure the method of instruction," he said. Students will be required to submit an investigative report to be assessed before and after each course. Only after the second assessment will they be certified for the course.
Constance K. Chamberlin, president of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a Richmond group that is one of the oldest fair-housing organizations in the country, also praised the attempt to offer training while raising some questions about the way HUD is proceeding. "I think they should be applauded for recognizing that the system is broken and people need training. As the system works today, there are thousands of people across the country who aren't getting the right treatment because people aren't trained to recognize the issues."
"Having said that, I am not sure they are going about it in the best way," Chamberlin said. "Probably it is not the most financially effective way to do it. At a time when we are focusing so much on not using government . . . you would think they would think about contracting with the National Fair Housing Alliance, who do a fantastic job."
Peoples sees it differently. She said the program "speaks well for this administration, to improve and aggressively enforce the fair housing act . . . so the public is better served."