Senate budget also took aim at anti-discrimination law

Senate budget also took aim at anti-discrimination law

Fair housingNorth Carolina might scale back its efforts to fight unlawful discrimination, if a Senate budget provision to repeal the state’s fair housing act is adopted as law.

The provision, which would repeal the State Fair Housing Act and shut down the state office that investigates discrimination complaints, was buried deep in the 500-plus budget (pages 390-391) that was made public and quickly passed the chamber last week.

The elimination of the state anti-discrimination measures got no attention during debates when the budget passed the Republican-controlled Senate last Thursday.

The move to repeal the state’s Fair Housing Act would also eliminate the N.C. Human Relations Commission, which is funded partly with federal funds and tasked with investigating and pursuing legal claims of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or disability when it comes to housing, employment and civil rights violations.

N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham lawyer and Democrat, said eliminating the State Fair Housing Act would means the state is backing down on its commitment to addressing unlawful discrimination.

“We should all be deeply concerned when we have a state that’s abandoning its commitment to equality,” he said.

The State Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination when it comes to buying, selling and renting homes, as well as building and retrofitting homes to accommodate those with disabilities and when it comes to government decisions about land use designations and affordable housing policies. The N.C. Human Relations Commission is authorized to investigate complaints of housing discrimination, and seek resolution through settlements or the courts.

Federal fair housing rules would still apply, but North Carolina residents would have to go through a federal Housing and Urban Development office, a process that fair housing advocates say tends to be lengthy and could delay resolutions for citizens.

The N.C. Department of Administration which oversees the N.C. Human Relations Commission, and Gov. Pat McCrory’s press office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling today, also upheld a judicial interpretation of the federal fair housing law that allows a showing of “disparate impact” to determine if discrimination occurred, for instances where particular policies disproportionately and negatively affect protected groups instead of more overt instances of discrimination.

The fair housing issue is also personal for McKissick, an African-American lawmaker serving his fourth term. While a Duke University law student, McKissick successfully filed and settled a fair housing complaint in Georgia after the manager of an all-white housing complex refused to allow him and another black student to sublet an apartment while working for a law firm in the area.

That experience as a young man hammered home the need to have protections for people who face unwarranted acts of discrimination, he said.

“That shows you why you need fair housing laws,” McKissick said. “If anything, we should be reaffirming it.”

Those that have pursued fair housing cases are also worried about the Senate’s quiet elimination of state-level protections.

“It’s troubling,” said Elizabeth Haddix, a lawyer with the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights at the Chapel Hill law school. “It would really be a horrible thing to do, particularly for low-income and people of color, to eliminate the State Fair Housing Act.”

Haddix and other staff at the civil rights center spent several years working on a state fair housing case where residents of the unincorporated community of Royal Oak protested a Brunswick County proposal to expand existing landfills near the largely black community. That case settled in 2014, when county officials agreed to instead use the land for a future school.

Long path ahead

The elimination, though it passed the Senate, is far from being a reality. The House had left the fair housing law and the N.C. Human Relations Commission alone in its budget. Both legislative chambers will need to agree on any changes as they enter budget negotiations that may last through the summer.

There are vast differences between how the House and Senate approached the budget, with the Senate including in its budget proposal other massive policy changes like a Medicaid reform package that would open up the mandated health care program for low-income seniors, children and the disabled to privatization.

If North Carolina’s fair housing law is repealed, North Carolina is still subject to federal fair housing rules but, instead of having state investigators able to probe and verify claims, complaints would have to go through a federal HUD office.
Those who have disabilities often turn to fair housing rules, when they face opposition to accommodating their living spaces for their needs, or face other obstacles in securing housing, said Corye Dunn, the public policy director for Disability Rights NC.

That includes instances ranging from people who are told by home owner associations that they can’t have visible wheelchair ramps or renters that wish to modify parts of their home to help improve their mobility.

Getting rid of the state body that addresses discrimination would leave people with limited options of resolving their complaints in an already over-taxed federal system.

“We expect that would only make it harder for people with disabilities in North Carolina to get their needs addressed,” Dunn said.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska-Few can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].

Image source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – www.hud.gov