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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 1, 2007

Hawaii housing bias may be underreported

 •  Housing bias complaints rise

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Arlene Johnson of 'Ewa Beach, seen with her service dog, "Freedom," says the management company of the development where she lives failed to accommodate her wheelchair-accessible pickup truck.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

  • To learn more about housing discrimination or to report an incident, call the Legal Aid Society of Hawai'i's Fair Housing hot line at 866-527-3247. All services are free and have no income restrictions.

  • To get information on fair housing laws or to file an administrative complaint, call the Hawai'i Civil Rights Commission at 586-8636 or 800-669-9777.

  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will also take complaints at its Honolulu office. To file a complaint, call HUD at 522-8175.

  • To read up on state and federal fair housing laws, go to the Hawai'i Civil Rights Commission Web site at http://hawaii.gov/hcrc or search for "fair housing" at www.hud.gov.

    STATE FAIR HOUSING LAW

    Chapter 515 in the Hawai'i Revised Statutes details Hawai'i's fair housing law. It prohibits discriminatory housing practices on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, color, religion, marital status, familial status, ancestry, disability, age or HIV infection. Violations of the law include refusing to rent, sell or grant a loan to someone based on one or more of the protected classes.

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    Only 43 people pursued housing discrimination cases with the Hawai'i Civil Rights Commission during the last fiscal year a slight decrease from the year before.

    But legal advocates aren't saying the Islands are a model for fair housing; they say housing discrimination goes largely unreported and unchecked.

    In fact, despite the low overall number, Hawai'i had one of the nation's worst complaint rates per 100,000 housing units from 2002 to 2006. Hawai'i ranks seventh in the nation for discrimination on that basis, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of federal statistics. On O'ahu there were about 12 complaints per 100,000 housing units from 2002 to 2006, compared with 4.5 complaints per 100,000 housing units nationwide.

    Hawai'i fair housing advocates contend the numbers understate the problem. The actual incidence of housing discrimination could be 10 times greater than what is reported, said Howard Lesser, an advocate for the Hawai'i Disability Rights Center.

    RETALIATION FEARED

    Cynthia Thomas, who runs the Legal Aid Society of Hawai'i's Fair Housing Project, added, "People are reluctant to file a complaint for a variety of reasons, including fear of retaliation by their landlord and the lengthy process of filing a complaint. Many people will choose to tolerate ... discriminatory practices to avoid homelessness or having to move."

    An average case in the Islands can take up to six months to complete and some take more than a year. But those willing to lodge complaints face barriers before they even start: Many are unsure where to turn for help and how to back up their claims, advocates say.

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigates violations of the federal Fair Housing Act. The Hawai'i Civil Rights Commission handles violations of state fair housing laws, which offer more protection than the federal statute.

    Legal Aid also helps victims of fair housing violations.

    The reluctance of victims to come forward makes the job of quantifying the scope of housing discrimination in Hawai'i nearly impossible. Housing advocates believe the tight housing market has worsened the problem, but those claims are based on anecdotal evidence. The figures show a decline. The 43 cases filed with the commission in fiscal year 2007, which ended June 30, were a drop from 57 the year before.

    Since January, Legal Aid has received 68 fair housing complaints, Thomas said. Last year, the nonprofit saw 99 complaints, five more than were filed in 2005.

    Every year, about 20 of the complaints Legal Aid gets are forwarded to the commission. Another 15 to 20 are pursued by Legal Aid exclusively, while the rest are dropped.

    Advocates don't know what to make of Hawai'i's figures or how to interpret the lack of an apparent trend. Over the last decade, the number of housing discrimination cases filed with the commission annually has gone up and down erratically, from a low of 31 in 1999 to a high of 85 a year earlier.

    In the face of those figures, advocates in Hawai'i are trying fruitlessly at times to raise alarms about housing discrimination and garner funds to increase education and outreach.

    Lesser, the disability rights advocate, said the relatively low number of complaints in Hawai'i makes funding for outreach hard to get and hard to keep, but increasingly necessary. "We try to scour the community to find victims," he said. "There's more (discrimination) out there than what's being reported."

    DISABILITY TOPS LIST

    Though the numbers don't appear to follow a trend, there has been some consistency to who is being victimized. Since fiscal year 1999, disability status has beaten out race, sex and familial status as the top reason for housing complaints filed with the civil rights commission. Forty percent of cases filed with the agency in fiscal 2007 and about one-third of complaints made with the Legal Aid Fair Housing were based on disability discrimination, including outright refusals to rent to people with disabilities.

    In addition, the Hawai'i Disability Rights Center took on 47 housing discrimination complaints last year, up from 40 in 2005. Some were forwarded to the Civil Rights Commission, while others were dealt with by the disability rights center.

    Advocates can't explain why the disabled are being singled out.

    But Christopher Jones, deputy executive director for the Hawai'i Civil Rights Commission, said it appears many landlords discriminate against the disabled and break fair housing laws unknowingly. "A lot of people just don't understand the law," Jones said. "I don't think people want to violate the law. They are not aware of what the law requires."

    'THIS ISN'T RIGHT'

    Arlene Johnson of 'Ewa Beach is pursuing a housing discrimination complaint against the management company of her development, Ocean Pointe-Spinnaker Place, saying the company failed to accommodate her wheelchair-accessible pickup truck, which has a lift on its back.

    Johnson said when she and her husband bought their $400,000 home in July, they were assured they could park the truck on the street in front of their home and then pursue the use of a handicapped-designated parking space reserved for guests. After they moved in, though, they were told they could not park the truck on the street and could not use a guest spot. The truck would not fit in the garage because of the wheelchair lift, which prevented the garage door from closing an unsafe situation in a community prone to burglaries.

    Recently, they traded in their pickup for a sport utility vehicle after someone threatened Johnson over her complaint. The SUV fits in their garage, but the couple is following through with their discrimination case filed with Legal Aid.

    "There's no way we would have closed on a home we thought there was no hope of parking at," said Johnson, who is in a wheelchair and blind. "We didn't want to anger the neighborhood, but this isn't right."

    Certified Management Company, which manages Ocean Pointe-Spinnaker Place, declined comment on the case.

    Fair housing laws dictate that the disabled are entitled to reasonable accommodations or modifications. Those can include the acceptance of a service dog in a no-pets unit, or giving a tenant permission to build a wheelchair ramp to get into a home. Bill Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawai'i Civil Rights Commission, said Hawai'i's fair housing laws are "substantially equivalent" to the federal Fair Housing Act passed 39 years ago and amended in 1988.

    The biggest difference locally came about two years ago, when the Legislature expanded fair housing laws to protect against discrimination because of sexual orientation. So far, the civil rights commission has seen few housing discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

    Other than the civil rights commission, the Legal Aid Society has become the biggest clearinghouse for housing discrimination complaints in the Islands. The Fair Housing Project was kicked off in 2001, primarily concentrating on outreach and education. But in December 2004, with a federal grant, the project switched gears to focus on enforcing fair housing laws.

    Besides the approximately 33 percent of complaints to Legal Aid based on disability status, about 20 percent of complaints allege race discrimination, and 15 percent are based on familial status discrimination, in which landlords refuse to rent to people with children.

    LANDLORDS TESTED

    In addition to taking complaints, the project tests landlords randomly or based on tips. Since 2004, the nonprofit has conducted about 250 tests, in which volunteer testers apply to rent a unit to see whether a landlord is discriminating against a certain protected group.

    The tests are admissible as evidence in a discrimination complaint, but are also used to help Legal Aid direct their outreach efforts. When discrimination is found during random tests, Legal Aid contacts the landlord involved to educate them on fair housing laws.

    Thomas declined to release the results of the tests, based on confidentiality concerns.

    But she said the outcomes of the random sampling tests tend to mimic complaints filed: Disability discrimination is the most common, followed by discrimination against families with young children. "In some cases, we'll have somebody say, 'This isn't the right place for somebody in a wheelchair,' " she said. "If we have a tester that has children, a lot of times they (landlords) don't call back. Or, they say this unit is too small and try to steer them elsewhere."

    But even those who lodge complaints often don't stick around to follow through with their case, Thomas said.

    Often, she added, complaints don't provide the quick relief tenants are looking for, either to get into a unit or stay in one. An average case takes a year or more to complete.

    "You really have to commit to the process once you file a complaint," she said.

    The average length of the 47 cases the Hawai'i Civil Rights Commission closed in fiscal year 2006 was 125 days. The year before, the average length of 66 cases that closed was 142 days.

    Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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