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St. Paul signs deal with HUD on housing complaint investigations

The city of St. Paul gets more responsibility for fighting housing discrimination under a new agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That means the city has new power to investigate complaints and subpoena landlords and business owners. The cases will go to federal court, unless resolved through conciliation or settled by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

As part of the deal, St. Paul gets $120,000 to educate property owners, businesses and landlords about their rights and responsibilities under the federal Fair Housing Act.

HUD Assistant Secretary John Trasvina was in town to sign the deal and said:

“This partnership means individuals will be able to bring housing discrimination issues to local offices that are familiar with the community and neighborhoods.”

It all sounds good, but I wondered how things will be different from what the city’s  Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity has already been doing.

Alyssa Wetzel-Moore, human rights Specialist, offered this explanation:

  • Filing a complaint and conducting the investigation is virtually the same under this new agreement. The only change is that under real property and housing cases, a charging party can file up to two years from the date of the act(s) of discrimination. Before, there was a one-year statute of limitations.
  • To file a complaint, an individual must show the basic elements of discrimination (member of protected class, adverse action or harassment, qualified for position/rental/etc., someone outside of protected class treated better or other facts indicating discrimination).  The investigation process of gathering documents and interviewing witnesses is the same.
  • For outcomes, we now require settlement attempts on all cases prior to reaching a case determination. We can also now act on discrimination that is imminent. In other words, if a landlord has threatened to evict a tenant, we can accept the complaint without waiting for the eviction to take place.  Through our relationship with HUD, we also have the authority to stop the eviction while the investigation is pending.
  • It’s technical, but worth explaining that the Saint Paul Human Rights Ordinance protects more classes than the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and/or familial status. The Ordinance covers those and also protects the additional classes of sexual or affectional orientation, creed, ancestry, marital status, or status with regard to public assistance.

And here are some reasons offered for why this agreement with HUD is a better deal:

  • Greater Outreach and Education: Through this work share agreement, we will have the resources to greatly increase our outreach and education through new outreach and education materials and publicity.
  • Greater Authority: We now have the power of the federal government behind us on Real Property (i.e. housing) cases. This gives us the authority to take the actions described under “outcomes” above.  There are higher damages available in federal court which may encourage cooperation in this process and settlement.  If there is probable cause of discrimination and the conciliation attempt is unsuccessful, we must bring the case before the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Commission or District Court.
  • Prevention: With our increase capacity to educate, we expect to also prevent discrimination from occurring once property owners, lenders, etc. are educated on their legal duties and responsibilities.
  • Local Expertise and Knowledge: [It] is a benefit to charging parties filing with HUD since Saint Paul cases will be referred to the Saint Paul Human Rights Office for investigation. Our local office is more familiar with local issues, communities, and neighborhoods which should lead to better services for the complainant.

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