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Panel suggests new federal agency to solve fair housing issues

WASHINGTON – Native Americans across the U.S. have long found that when they try to get information or secure loans for home buying purposes, they often receive responses and rates that just aren’t as good as their non-Indian counterparts.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development confirmed those anecdotes, and reported very high levels of discrimination and steering against American Indian, Black, Latino, Asian and home seekers based on the experience of paired testers (investigators posing as renters or homebuyers) in major metropolitan housing markets.

Another study conducted by HUD through the Urban Institute focused on lending practices to minority homebuyers found they faced a “significant risk of unequal treatment” when they visited mainstream mortgage lending institutions to make pre-application inquiries. The homebuyers were told about fewer loan products, offered less assistance, and denied basic information about loan amount and house price.

Now, a panel composed of former HUD secretaries and bipartisan civil rights and housing experts wants to change those kinds of discriminatory practices – and HUD’s lack of progress in curbing them.

To that end, the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity on Dec. 9 called for policymakers to create new government agency for housing in a report titled, “The Future of Fair Housing.” Discrimination toward Native Americans is mentioned within the document.

According to the report, which summarizes findings of the panel’s six-month investigation into the state of fair housing in the U.S., a new office is needed to address “the longstanding and systemic problems with fair housing enforcement” at HUD.

“We recommend that preparation begin immediately to support the establishment of an independent fair housing enforcement agency that can provide the country with a powerful force that supports fairness and fair housing choice in a unified and systemic way,” said the report.

The recommendation comes at a time when many tribal housing agencies have expressed intense criticism of HUD’s operations. Over 30 reservation-based housing agencies are currently suing the department to recover money that the federal agency had allocated to tribal housing programs and then took back after conducting internal financial audits.

“In each of the very different cities we visited, we heard the same thing: the system is broken,” said former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros during a press conference in which the report was released.

Housing experts on the panel were generally optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama would support their recommendation upon taking office.

“I think there is ample support – certainly among transition officials and in Congress,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, at the press conference.

Henderson believes it is “quite likely” that Obama’s administration will set up the new agency. As of press time, Obama had yet to name a new HUD secretary.

According to the authors of the report, “Housing discrimination distorts the real estate market in ways that both harm home seekers and frustrate the clear majority of real estate professionals who work hard to practice fair housing in their day-to-day business.

“When rates of discrimination are high it is difficult for those who are strong supporters of fair housing to function efficiently in the marketplace.”

The report also notes that the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status.

The government’s enforcement process of the law generally begins when an individual files a discrimination complaint with either HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity or a state or local governmental fair housing enforcement agency.

Many of these complaints result from referrals by private nonprofit fair housing organizations, which conduct testing and investigate claims of housing discrimination.

The complete report can be found at http://civilrights.org/publications/reports/fairhousing/.