COLUMBIA — More housing discrimination complaints are filed in Missouri than in any other Midwest state.
That avalanche of complaints and subsequent investigations — 150 of them in 2008 alone — represent the enforcement side of the national push for fair housing. It was the other side of that campaign — education — that the Fair Housing Symposium addressed in Columbia on Friday morning.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and the Columbia Commission on Human Rights brought in experts from around the state to speak to about a dozen local residents and answer questions regarding antihousing-discrimination laws, predatory lending and related issues relevant to renters, landlords, lenders, Realtors and homeowners.
Federal and state law prevents discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability and national origin. In addition, families cannot be refused housing because they have children. The law does not protect other groups, including college undergraduates — a distinction that holds special relevance for local landlords.
HUD Compliance Branch Chief Denise Gipson said that progress has been made in terms of minority home-ownership and income levels, but disparities still exist, and the foreclosure crisis, which has disproportionately affected minority communities, has not helped.
Gipson said that though "racial minorities are more likely to receive a high-cost loan," lending discrimination is difficult to detect because so much of the approval process occurs out of the borrower's sight," she said.
"No family should lose the home they worked so hard to obtain because of discrimination."
Minority groups and older adults are often targeted by predatory lenders because they might not be well-versed in specific financial terms, practices and vocabulary, said Amy Susan, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Susan said that, in general, housing discrimination is the second-most reported form of discrimination nationwide.
"Enforcement is not enough; community education is key to fighting housing discrimination," Susan said.
Gipson also mentioned another facet of HUD's education campaign, targeted at fifth- and sixth-grade students and featuring HUD's new mascot, Franklin the Fair Housing Fox. Franklin's motto is "Fair housing: It's not an option; it's the law." Gipson visits schools and teaches students the pain and frustration of housing discrimination through games and activities.
MU law professor Rigel Oliveri spoke about the legal rights and common complaints of residents facing housing discrimination. In addition to racial discrimination, Oliveri, who worked on housing discrimination cases with the Department of Justice for five years, said restrictions against immigrants and sexual harassment of poor female tenants by landlords are significant and growing issues in the field.
Oliveri said that, especially in the Midwest, housing "segregation patterns are as stark as they could be."
On the levels of housing segregation, Oliveri said that, even today, "they're only slightly less bad than apartheid was in South Africa."