Houses in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point neighborhood. A coalition of civil rights advocates surprised by the closing of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. in August are rallying to revive the organization. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Years before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 established national fair housing rules, a small nonprofit organization in Baltimore was already working to expose unscrupulous landlords discriminating against black tenants.

The work of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. (BNI) had garnered national praise for its foresight on the issue from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in Housing. It worked with the group to host two fair-housing conferences in the city as momentum was mounting for the landmark civil rights legislation.

After six decades as Maryland’s only federally designated fair housing advocate, BNI is defunct — even though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development still directs tenants to report discrimination claims to the group’s dead phone line.

But a coalition of civil rights advocates surprised by BNI’s closing in August are rallying to revive an organization that struggled to finance its programs to educate landlords and tenants, field thousands of phone calls and complaints, file lawsuits and conduct “testing” — sending black and white prospective tenants to the same landlords to document discrimination.

The group would take action when landlords told black would-be tenants that no units were available, but quickly gave white customers information on vacancies.

“Its demise is unfortunate. It’s an important organization that needs to be in place,” said Odette Ramos, executive director of the Community Development Network. “We’re trying to piece it all back together again.”

Ramos has been spearheading the effort after Maryland Assistant Housing Secretary Carol Gilbert asked her to help form and lead a coalition of nonprofit organizations, including the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, the ACLU of Maryland, law firm Brown Goldstein Levy and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

“The sudden closing of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. was a surprise to state and local government and nonprofit partners,” Gilbert said. Its work, she added, “was invaluable” as the state tries to “offer housing opportunities in a fair, sustainable and inclusive manner.”

As Matt Hill, a Public Justice Center attorney, said, “It’s a huge hole that needs to be filled.”

Together with the National Fair Housing Alliance, the coalition has given BNI a new name — the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland — and expects it to be operating July 1, on what would have been the organization’s 60th birthday. The coalition has also established a new website and secured BNI’s existing charity status with the Internal Revenue Service, which will allow it to maintain inclusion in HUD’s “Fair Housing Initiatives Program.”

The designation empowered BNI, which was founded in 1959, to “speak to housing providers on [tenants’] behalf, conduct an investigation, including testing, to help determine if you experienced discrimination, or otherwise provide you with information and assistance,” according to HUD’s website, which still lists Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. as the state’s only fair housing agency. BNI’s recognition by the federal agency allowed it to pursue “enforcement activities to prevent or eliminate discriminatory housing practices.”

One of its most recent victories arose from its complaint filed with HUD against Baltimore County’s housing policies. BNI filed the complaint in 2011 along with other civil rights groups and negotiated for five years until the county agreed in 2016 to a HUD-enforced deal to begin to correct policies that have impeded affordable housing construction for at least as long as BNI had been operating.

“What we have today is justice in housing in Baltimore County,” Robert Strupp, then executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., said two years ago.

Strupp retired in June after six years of leading the organization. Two months later, a consultant was hired to help the nonprofit determine how best to move forward with dwindling cash to pay its day-to-day bills. Its main revenue — government grants — could be tapped as reimbursement only after those bills had been paid.

HUD has given the organization about $300,000 a year for the past four years to manage complaints and to provide fair housing training to landlords and local government officials. Maryland added another $45,000 to support those services. Together with other government support, those grants made up about two-thirds of BNI’s revenue. The other third came from private contributions.

Total revenue hit a five-year high of $806,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016, according to BNI’s federal tax filings. But revenue fell by 24 percent to $610,000 last year as both government grants and private donations declined. Expenses of $703,336 left the group with a $93,000 deficit.

With BNI’s expenses exceeding its revenue, the group’s board decided to close. In a statement posted on BNI’s website in August, interim executive director John Herron said that “it became clear that the organization faced insurmountable obstacles to its continued operation.”

Robert Pierson, chairman of BNI’s board, also said: “It is with great sadness that the BNI board came to the decision to close the organization, especially given its long, proud history and the ongoing needs in the community for its services.”

Pierson, who now serves as vice chairman of the new group’s board, could not be reached for comment.

The organization’s 18 employees fielded 10,800 calls from tenants and landlords and investigated 75 complaints last year, according to its most recent tax filing.

The funding constraints to pay for such services are a problem that nearly all “small nonprofits” face, Ramos said.

“They had lots of money of coming in but little to no reserve for operating costs,” she said.

The state and Baltimore County have both assured the new board that they will provide grants to fund the new group’s work, Ramos said.

She and the board are still negotiating with Baltimore City officials. In addition, the Baltimore-based John J. Leidy Foundation has provided a grant to rehire two BNI employees and to help the coalition formally relaunch by July 1 under a business model deployed by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

“It’s building slowly,” Ramos said. “We’re taking it slow to make it work and to get the right people in place.”

Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, said other nonprofit organizations could have divvied up BNI’s responsibilities, but its work would have been diluted as those groups focused on their core missions.

“Maryland needs an active organization that is focused entirely on looking at fair housing issues,” White said. “That’s really important work.”

Especially, she said, as some jurisdictions — including Baltimore — begin to debate proposed legislation to prohibit landlords from rejecting potential tenants who use federal rental subsidies, known as Housing Choice or Section 8 vouchers. Such “source of income” discrimination is barred in some jurisdictions in Maryland, but the Baltimore County Council defeated the measure when it was introduced as part of the agreement it entered with BNI and HUD in 2016.

“Housing is so fundamental you don’t want it to get lost in the middle of other important services that other groups are doing,” White said.

Baltimore Sun