Salisbury council revisits fair housing discussion

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 21, 2015

By Mark Wineka

SALISBURY — What are some of the impediments to fair housing in Salisbury?

Here were some obstacles noted in a 2014 analysis:

• Lending institutions deny black and Hispanic applicants for home loans at a much higher rate than the average denial rates for whites.

• Few residents take advantage of fair housing services such as Legal Aid of North Carolina because they don’t know about them.

• People with traditionally black or Arab names are more frequently discouraged in their search for rental properties.

• Salisburians generally lack an understanding of fair housing law, and there’s low interest among residents in promoting fair housing.

At Tuesday’s Salisbury City Council meeting, Planning Director Janet Gapen reviewed some of the fair housing obstacles confronting Salisbury, based on the “2014 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing” which the city submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city is required to furnish HUD with this kind of report every five years as one of the requirements for receiving HUD grants. At council’s request, Gapen reviewed the 2014 report because of fair housing concerns brought up by speakers at a Sept. 15 meeting.

Impediments to fair housing are defined as “any actions, omissions or decisions taken because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin which restrict housing choices or the availability of housing choices, or any actions, omissions or decisions which have this effect.”

Gapen noted the legal framework for fair housing practices goes back to 1968 when laws were enacted to address severe, overt discrimination. While forms of discrimination aren’t as obvious today, she said subtle instances of discrimination still occur, and that’s not unique to Salisbury but prevalent across the state and country.

The city can serve as a conduit in referring housing discrimination complaints to HUD, the N.C. Human Relations Commission and Legal Aid of North Carolina, Gapen noted.

judging from the low number (10) of housing discrimination complaints in Salisbury that were registered with the state between 2004 and 2011, Gapen said cases of discrimination are probably not finding their way to agencies that can help.

She mentioned some measures the city has taken to promote fair housing. The city’s Housing Advocacy Commission has been host for public workshops with Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Charlotte Human Relations Council.

Gapen said the city also has created a fair housing brochure for information purposes and offers credit counseling, mortgage assistance and home ownership training through the Community Development Corp.

Additional things the city could do are partnering with Legal Aid in conducting more fair housing tests, circulating better information to residents, making local leaders aware of the importance of investment in low-income areas and more workshops, Gapen said.

New federal fair housing rules take effect in 2017 which will require even more meaningful actions to overcome historic patterns of housing segregation, Gapen said.

The strongest communities are those with mixed-income housing and diversified neighborhoods, she said.

Councilman Brian Miller, who was a bank loan officer for 20 years, said from his experience banks are looking to make loans whenever they can. A ready supply of available loans is not the problem, he said, but getting people approved for the loans is the bigger issue.

Credit history, income levels and down payments are the kinds of factors deciding whether a bank makes a loan or not, Miller said.

An 18-year board member of the Community Development Corp., Councilwoman Karen Alexander said the CDC has seen “many, many, many success stories” in training and qualifying new homeowners in neighborhoods such as Jersey City, Park Avenue and the West End.

A year’s program in home ownership education is one of the things required of participants in the CDC program, Alexander said.

Councilman Pete Kennedy said he knows the city is doing some things, but he still wanted to know how it could reach out and help people who face discrimination when it comes to housing. Miller agreed the city could do better.

Kenneth Hardin, a candidate for City Council, said he heard the council acknowledging impediments to fair housing on one hand, but members seemed to be putting the onus of overcoming housing discrimination on the victims of it.

Hardin said he understood the need for home ownership training and a good credit score, but he felt the council was trying to lay the blame for discrimination on those being discriminated against.

If people aren’t coming to housing-related workshops, maybe the problem is in the process and getting the word out, Hardin said.

Constance Partee Johnson, also a council candidate, said she agreed with Hardin and has recent experience as a renter in Salisbury.

“It’s not a friendly welcome,” she said. Johnson added the housing programs mentioned aren’t readily available or advertised effectively.

When she drives around Salisbury, Johnson said, she becomes depressed in seeing all the boarded-up houses that could be made available if local investors were aware of the opportunities.

Whitney Peckman thanked the council for following up on the Sept. 15 meeting and making Gapen available to meet with residents who had questions about fair housing.

Peckman asked council to consider establishing a small committee of people that could provide input on housing discrimination concerns and maybe assist the city in communicating better with residents.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.