The D.C. Office of Human Rights recently launched a “Fair Housing is Your Right” campaign aimed at educating residents about anti-discrimination laws in housing, in hopes of reducing the number of discriminatory indicidents and increasing reporting of those incidents.
Gustavo Velasquez, director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights, took some time to answer questions about the campaign and housing discrimination.
What prompted the DC Office of Human Rights to undertake the Fair Housing is Your Right ad campaign?
The District of Columbia has one of the most robust civil and human rights laws in the country — the D.C. Human Rights Act — which affords protections against housing discrimination for 19 protected categories. Yet we know many people who are discriminated against in housing do not know they are protected under law, so we designed and launched this ad campaign to expand awareness and increase reporting of potentially discriminatory incidents. Opportunity for fair housing is one of the most basic, yet often overlooked, civil and human right, so the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) is making it a priority to ensure District residents are guaranteed equal access to it.
What are some typical forms of housing discrimination that get reported? How many incidents are reported each year?
From October 2010 to October 2011, OHR handled 48 cases of housing discrimination, with the largest number being reported as discrimination based on disability, race or source of income (such as housing vouchers). But we know the number of discriminatory incidents actually taking place is much higher. Many people don’t realize they can’t be discriminated against because they have children under age 18, are gay or transgender, or are of a certain religion. By increasing awareness among communities typically discriminated against — which is the aim of our ad campaign — we hope to see more discriminatory incidents being reported and addressed.
Is housing discrimination more or less prevalent than it has been in the past?
In 2011, the number of housing discrimination cases we handled was the highest in three years, but it is difficult to say with certainty that more discrimination is happening. Housing is a dynamic issue right now in the District — in terms of affordability and accessibility — and it is entirely possible more discriminatory incidents will be reported as these issues and our awareness campaign play out.
Given how strict the lending guidelines have become, do you find there is more lending discrimination than before?
Lending discrimination is certainly one area within housing discrimination that has garnered considerable attention in recent years. While we cannot directly point to stricter lending guidelines or the foreclosure crisis directly causing lending discrimination, data does show that certain communities are impacted more than others. Through the receipt of the HUD FHAP Partnership Grant, OHR is working with project partners like the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) to analyze publicly available data, such as Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Data, that may point to increases in lending discrimination. OHR is committed to helping the District truly achieve one of HUD’s most significant policy priorities: “affirmatively further fair housing.”
Some landlords say the District housing laws are overly onerous regulations. For example, if a landlord wants to limit the number of tenants who can rent an apartment – which seems to be a safety issue -- he can be accused of discriminating against families. How can landlords protect their property and still comply with the law?
It’s true that rental decisions cannot be based on traits covered under the DC Human Rights Act — such as housing-seekers with children — but there are many protections for landlords under both District and federal laws. Landlords can always hold current and potential tenants accountable for violating policies and procedures, or for other legitimate non-discriminatory reasons. When housing complaints reach our Office, we serve as a neutral body throughout the process and work to ensure all parties understand their rights and responsibilities. But before it reaches our Office, landlords and lenders should always consider the prohibitions under the Act and local and federal fair laws in their decision-making, as the District is making a firm commitment to advancing fair housing practices.
If someone believes they are being discriminated against, what should they do?
If someone believes they were discriminated against in the District, they can file a complaint online at www.ohr.dc.gov or stop by our Office at 441 Fourth Street NW, Suite 570 North. Our legal process is cost-free for complainants. They may also call our Office at (202) 727-4559 with any questions and for more information. To learn more about the 19 protected categories in the District, they can visit www.ohr.dc.gov/protectedclasses.