Tuesday, June 22, 2010

TOP STORY>>Fair-housing data collection under way

Leader staff writer

Every five years, municipalities across the country that accept funds from the federal Housing and Urban Development agency are required to conduct an analysis of local barriers to access to fair housing.

A survey is under way in Jacksonville to collect data for the analysis and is available through July on the city’s website, www.cityofjacksonville.net, under the “What’s New” tab.

Concerned citizens as well as anyone with knowledge of the housing industry – through the construction trades, real estate, law and education, or banking and finance – are encouraged to fill out the anonymous questionnaire.

“You want to see if there are any problems in your city so you can ward them off,” said Teresa Watson, the director of community development for the city. “The survey looks at whether everyone has access to fair and affordable housing.

Sometimes people or agencies discriminate, and they don’t know it.”

Watson said that she is not aware of any cases of discrimination in housing in Jacksonville in recent years.

Taking advantage of available email distribution lists, the electronic survey has already been sent out to all employees of the city and Pathfinder, residents of Jacksonville Towers and members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. By posting the survey on the city’s website, the hope is to tap a diverse group – “all the players, agencies as well as citizens, homeowners and renters as well,” Watson said.

Local building codes, city planning for home development, zoning ordinances, occupancy standards, real estate and lending practices or simply what individuals know and understand about home ownership and financing are all sources of possible impediments to obtaining safe, affordable housing.

For example, when a city makes way for new housing by tearing down older, smaller houses but then requires newly constructed homes in the area be larger, that practice may limit low-income individuals from finding an affordable place to live.

“For every house removed but not replaced, you create a barrier,” Watson explained. “Sometimes there are barriers that are not done consciously but to make the city grow, because the focus is on upscale, more expensive homes.”

The findings of the survey will be presented at a public forum at 6 p.m. on August 17 at the Jacksonville Community Center.

Dinner will be provided.

The federal Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents of legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18).

The Arkansas Fair Housing Act, passed in 2001, established the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission (AFHC), in order to provide procedures for the investigation and remediation of unfair housing practices, in accord with provisions of federal law.

Carol Johnson, director of the AFHC, said that her office receives about 250 calls annually about suspected discrimination in housing. Of those, 150 to 175 turn into actual complaints that are investigated.

Most common are complaints about available housing that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act or concerns that are related to race, ethnicity or national origin. Familial status has to do with landlords not wanting to rent to families with children or many children are also common complaints, Johnson said.

Statistics are not kept by municipality, but by county so the AFHC cannot comment on barriers to fair housing that might exist in Jacksonville, Johnson said. “The majority of cases that we get are in larger metropolitan areas – Little Rock, Fort Smith and Fayetteville.”

When the survey was conducted in Jacksonville five years ago, a need was identified for education on financial literacy. Such a course is now provided through a partnership with local banks.

The 12-week program addresses various aspects of financial management that impact home ownership – functions of banks, managing personal checking and saving accounts, budgeting, credit card use, borrowing and the responsibilities of owning and maintaining a home.

The class is offered at no charge. Anyone 16 years or older may enroll. The current class runs through July.

“We have a 17-year-old and four ladies from the (Jacksonville) Towers” in the class, Watson said.

Another course is planned for the fall. For more information about the course or the fair housing survey, call 501-982-0026.