Agency director: we lost funds for doing our job

Jan. 5, 2000
by Tracey McCartney
National Fair Housing Advocate Online

Five times the Intermountain Fair Housing Council in Boise, Idaho, and a legal services office with which it works, applied for funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to do fair housing work in Idaho. Five times it got HUD approval.

But not this time.

IFHC director Richard Mabbutt believes there's a connection between his recent failure to get HUD funding and the 80 complaints he filed in 1998 and 1999 against architects, developers and builders in Idaho whose apartment complexes are not accessible to people with disabilities.

Many of those builders complained to Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that controls HUD's budget. During budget hearings in April 1999, Craig asked HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo several questions about HUD's enforcement and education efforts regarding the accessibility law, including at least one about the Idaho fair housing group "suddenly filing large numbers of complaints, when previously there were very few."

Craig has received more than $62,000 in campaign contributions since 1989 from some of the real estate and building interests complaining about the accessibility law and its enforcement. Two of the largest contributors are the political action committees associated with the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors. They are among the richest and most generous PACs in the country, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Craig told a realty company in a June 1999 letter that Cuomo had promised him at that hearing that he would "personally look into the complaints in Idaho."

The fair housing council has been a past recipient of funds from HUD's Fair Housing Initiatives Program, created by Congress in 1987 to provide private organizations with funds to assist HUD in enforcing the federal Fair Housing Act and similar state and local laws. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, and, since 1988, familial status (the presence or expected presence of children under 18 in a household) and disability.

In 1988 Congress amended the Act to add broad protection from discrimination against people with disabilities. The amendment included a requirement that most new apartment complexes built after early 1991 be accessible to people with disabilities. Almost nine years later, surveys by professional builders' organizations and by advocacy groups have found that most newer complexes don't comply with the law. Its interpretation and enforcement have been the subject of recent controversy (see the companion story, GAO looking into accessibility controversy").

Depending upon the terms of their grants, private organizations that receive enforcement funds from HUD usually are expected to investigate complaints of housing discrimination, to perform undercover "tests" of housing providers to determine whether they are abiding by the law, and to bring lawsuits and administrative complaints against those who are violating it.

Mabbutt believes his organization's aggressive enforcement against builders and developers in Idaho, which was expected under the terms of his grant, led to his not getting funds in the last round of grants. The grant awards were announced on Dec. 15.

In hindsight, Mabbutt said he's not sure what he could have done to enforce the law yet not turn Craig against his program. He said he filed complaints against so many developers because some told him they would not make their complexes accessible to settle the cases unless he also went after their competitors and "leveled the playing field."

And while one of Craig's complaints is that the administrative actions were filed by the organization and not a person with a disability who'd actually been denied housing, Mabbutt said his group's approach kept the builders' costs down because they had fewer plaintiffs to satisfy.

"We asked essentially for retrofit and a little education and outreach money and partial recovery of our investigative costs," he said. "We thought we could evoke the most good that way."

Demonstrators marched on the Idaho Statehouse after the grants were announced. Craig has said publicly he doesn't know why the organization did not receive funding but that he would have questioned HUD if it had given money to the organization.

Ken Burgess, Craig's Boise regional director, said Craig was concerned that the Idaho fair housing group's funding application would not put sufficient resources to education instead of enforcement. The subcommittee that controls HUD's budget told Cuomo that more money should go to education, Burgess said.

Though Craig's office never saw the Idaho group's funding application, "we knew that they historically had operated mostly out of the enforcement side of (the funding program)," Burgess said. "And our point was that enforcement should not be misconstrued as a form of education and that HUD has a responsibility to educate the people who do this (building) for a living."

HUD will not comment on funding decisions, but Mabbutt said he was told his application for funding was not meritorious.

Mabbutt said he will try to keep the agency running with the help of volunteers and then perhaps try to apply again the next time HUD makes funds available.

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