Missouri’s ability to investigate housing discrimination and enforce fair housing laws in rural areas could be at risk.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development warned Missouri lawmakers last year that Senate Bill 43’s amendments to the Missouri Human Rights Act make the state unable to enforce federal housing law and ineligible for funding under the Fair Housing Assistance Program. The legislature passed the bill, and last August HUD began taking all federal housing law cases from local entities. This month, HUD suspended the state’s participation in the program.
If the state does not “restore” Fair Housing Law by repealing the bill or altering some of its provisions by May 15, HUD said in a letter that it will withdraw Missouri’s fair housing agencies from the assistance program.
The state received more than $600,000 per year for the program in fiscal years 2015 and 2016. That money supports agencies that investigate and prosecute discrimination. The funding can reimburse investigative costs, as well as cover outreach and education.
“Discrimination is alive and well,” said Charles Bryson, executive director of the St. Louis Civil Rights Enforcement Agency. “Not having the federal protections really puts a roadblock into quality of life of people every day, people who are struggling.”
The agency was due to receive $149,000 from HUD to pay several salaries and fund educational programs, according to Bryson. But he expects the city will instead receive “very limited” funds this coming fiscal year, and potentially nothing by 2019.
Many cases, one agency
In August last year, HUD determined that state and local agencies could not enforce federal law as a preliminary step to March’s suspension. Bryson worries that without other agencies pitching in, the federal caseload will continue to pile up.
“Instead of having three different entities all over the state that are doing work on fair housing, you now have one. Which means you have backlog,” he said. “That’s going to be a huge problem.”
Bryson said that the backlog could leave people in discriminatory housing situations for longer — and provide solutions too late.
“The system will not work well for people who are in dire need and distress and need to find some relief quickly,” he said.
Officials at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council said the backlog is already becoming apparent.
The council receives funding from a different HUD program to root out discriminatory landlords and respond to requests for help. Executive director Willie Jordan said the council has passed HUD 11 cases that the Missouri Commission on Human Rights would normally have handled.
Five of those cases were high-priority complaints dealing with buildings that aren’t accessible to individuals with disabilities. Jordan said he’s worried that several of the cases may take a year or two longer than usual.
“That means a year or two more it’ll take before these places will be open to persons with accessibility needs, because they’re not accessible right now,” he said.
Rural areas at risk
Without the Missouri Commission on Human Rights handling cases, Jordan said his agency could address more discrimination issues across the state. Distance and limited resources mean his investigators would need more time to handle such cases, and some might go unaddressed.
Jordan and Bryson both said that discrimination could go unchecked in rural areas that lack civil rights agencies.
“For you to move to a place like Sikeston or Cape Girardeau as a person who is a minority, a different national origin, Muslim, has a disability — is really now, under this new Senate Bill 43, to be putting yourself in danger,” Jordan said. The bill, according to HUD, “impermissibly limits” some legal options for people alleging housing discrimination.
Jordan said that urban areas may fare better if they have local housing equality agencies and other HUD-funded programs.
The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which oversees the human rights commission, said in a statement that it is working with HUD to “clear up any differences of interpretation” in the law. The department also said that “no Missourians will lose any services as a result of this decision. The [Missouri Commission on Human Rights] will continue to enforce state housing laws and refer other housing cases to HUD to ensure no Missourian goes unserved.”
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has advocated the full repeal of Senate Bill 43. State Sens. Jill Schupp, Jacob Hummel, and Jamilah Nasheed, all Democrats, have proposed bills that would modify specific laws altered in last year’s bill. None have gained much traction.
Schupp said, “I’m not completely discouraged yet.” But she and other Democratic politicians have expressed concerns that the GOP-controlled Missouri senate will not let the bills move forward.
A representative of state Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, who sponsored Senate Bill 43, said the senator had no comment on HUD’s suspension of Fair Housing Assistance Program funding.
If the Senate does not pass bills modifying Senate Bill 43 by the end of session in May, it could take at least another year for the state to comply with federal Fair Housing Law.
Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin