The National Fair Housing Alliance is launching a local nonprofit that will investigate discrimination complaints, back up those investigations with lawsuits and lobby for more equitable housing policies in the region.
Initially funded by a $1.88 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nonprofit will be eligible to receive major, ongoing funding from HUD for years to come.
The NFHA chose Memphis — one of the country’s most segregated cities — after the city kept rising to the top of its recent national efforts on homeownership access, source of income discrimination and redlining, according to NFHA general counsel Morgan Williams. The alliance had also recently conducted an in-depth study (below) of fair housing in the city, which found a great need for such a nonprofit.
“The lack of sustained fair housing enforcement in the Memphis area means several issues are likely ripe for broad systemic enforcement,” the study says.
NFHA created the report for the City of Memphis. Along with fair housing deficiencies, it also identified serious issues with code enforcement and renters’ rights in Memphis and advised the city it should dedicate more funds to those issues.
Redlining: The discriminatory practice of denying services to residents of certain neighborhoods based on the race of those who live there.
Fair Housing: The concept that everyone should receive equal housing opportunities, regardless of race, sex, national origin or disability.
What a fair housing nonprofit can do
In 2012, the City of Memphis and Shelby County were able to force Wells Fargo to pay a major settlement based on its discriminatory lending practices here.
The lawsuit, filed by longtime local housing lawyer Webb Brewer, won county residents and both governments $432 million worth of grants and loans.
But in the 11 years since then, Brewer doesn’t think a single major fair housing lawsuit has been filed by a local government or nonprofit.
It’s a major source of frustration for him.
“Memphis is (a) mecca on fair housing issues,” Brewer said. “(We need) serious funding (for) court challenges and aggressive lawsuits.”
The new fair housing nonprofit should have the resources to pursue some of this type of legal action, Williams said.
It will also be able to conduct fair housing testing, education and advocacy work.
“(It will) challenge systemic local policies that might prove to be a barrier to housing choice for communities or different groups of families,” Williams said.
Brewer said this lobbying piece is sorely needed locally. He compared existing fair housing advocates lobbying the Tennessee legislature against the real estate lobby to a mouse fighting with gorillas.
‘All the work that needs to be done’
The recent NFHA study critiqued the City of Memphis’ code enforcement, resources for renters facing eviction and progress in reaching its own fair housing goals, as outlined in its 2019 Analysis of Impediments study.
“Each year, it should make public reports on its progress toward meeting each of (its fair housing) goals and determine whether any changes in strategy are needed,” the study says.
Mairi Albertson, deputy director of the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development, sees this critique of her department’s communications as a fair one. She said her team will work to correct it, especially when it updates its Analysis of Impediments in the next couple of years. She said, though, that the city has made progress on fair housing issues, particularly as it pursues its new housing policy plan. For instance, it has made it easier for people to build homes on small lots, which can help address the housing shortage that exacerbates segregation.
She said the city has also recently increased the amount of down payment assistance local homebuyers can receive from $10,000 to $25,000 to address the city’s large racial homeownership gap that both the Analysis of Impediments and NFHA study identified as a major problem.
Currently, the city only has about $400,000 in its annual budget for down payment assistance, but Albertson said she thinks that could grow if it starts receiving more applications.
Along with devoting more funds to homeownership initiatives, the NFHA study recommended the city fund legal access for city residents facing eviction and increase its spending on code enforcement.
These recommendations were based in part on two of the study’s survey results:
- Almost 45% of respondents had faced eviction or knew someone who had in the past 10 years.
- Less than 20% of respondents had reported or received a code violation in the decade.
Along with needing more funding, the study says the city’s code enforcement needs to focus more on the habitability of rental properties and less on the external conditions of vacant properties. Brewer agreed with this analysis.
Albertson said nothing in the report was a surprise to the code officials her team shared it with. She added that her team wants to collaborate more closely with code enforcement, which is housed in the Division of Public Works.
When presented with the reports’ findings, former Community Redevelopment Agency president and longtime low-income housing advocate Rosalyn Willis said none should surprise anyone in Memphis.
To her, all of the identified problems have been obvious for years, and all of the solutions should have been implemented long ago.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about all the work that needs to be done because nothing has been done,” Willis said.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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