HOME Settles Four Cases with Tonawanda PHA

Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Inc. and the North Tonawanda Housing Authority have reached a settlement in four related discrimination cases brought by the Buffalo-based fair housing agency.

Under the term of conciliation agreements negotiated before Judges James Wilcox and William Straub of the New York State Division of Human Rights, the North Tonawanda Housing Authority agreed to pay HOME and its three clients a total of $17,700. They ag reed to take a series of affirmative actions sought by the fair housing agency. While not admitting any wrong doing, the Authority also explicitly agreed to end its practice of refusing to admit unmarried couples, which violates the state Human Rights La w.

In 1990 HOME began an investigation of the North Tonawanda Housing Authority that revealed evidence of discrimination due to marital status, national origin, sex, disability and age. After unsuccessful efforts to conciliate, in February 1991 HOME filed a discrimination complaint against the Authority with the N Y Division of Human Rights. This complaint was resolved with a pre-determination conciliation agreement and order after conciliation in which the Housing Authority agreed to make a nominal payme nt to HOME and undertake specified affirmative actions.

When the North Tonawanda Housing Authority failed to fulfill the terms of the conciliation agreement, HOME dispatched a series of letters intended to gain compliance. Although the NTHA eventually fulfilled some provisions, it never fully complied with t he agreement.

In April of 1992, HOME was approached by a young woman Allison M., who reported that officials of the Authority had asked about her marital status. This was a violation of both the Human Rights Law and the conciliation agreement. She said they discourag ed her and ultimately denied her an opportunity to rent a unit.

Then in August of 1992 HOME heard from Michelle L. and George G., another young couple who had sought housing at the North Tonawanda Housing Authority. They too alleged they were asked about their marital status, discouraged and ultimately denied housin g.

Michelle and George further alleged that their application had been put on hold until after their scheduled marriage date. Soon thereafter, they received a letter from the Authority saying a unit was available. However, when Michelle responded the same day the letter had arrived, she was asked if the marriage had taken place. On learning that their marriage had been postponed, the NTHA staffer reportedly claimed the letter had been sent in error and that no unit was available.

Armed with this new evidence of discrimination and continued non-compliance with the 1991 conciliation agreement, HOME filed complaints with the Division of Human Rights in the names of Allison, Michelle, George and the fair housing agency. When attorne ys for the Authority claimed their practices were compelled by regulations of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, that state agency was added as a respondent.

Acknowledging that its regulations may not have kept pace with changes in fair housing law, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal expressed a willingness to amend those regulations and ultimately played a positive role in facilitating settlement.

In addition to agreeing to the cash payment, the North Tonawanda Housing Authority pledged: to revise its rental application; to change its policies and procedures to conform with the N Y Human Rights Law; to provide HOME with a copy of the revised proc edures; and to notify referral agencies of its equal opportunity policy.

The authority also agreed to have its personnel attend a fair housing training session to be conducted by HOME; to make all tenant applications available for inspection by the Division of Human Rights and HOME; and to use the equal opportunity logotype in all advertisements and promotional materials.

Commending the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal for its role in the settlement, HOME Executive Director Scott W. Gehl said: "The message is clear. Regulations are no talisman; government agencies must comply with fair housing law."