Achtenberg Pledges To Get Title VIII House In Order

Fair housing advocates are placing great hope in the commitments made by Roberta Achtenberg in the process which led to her Senate confirmation May 24, as HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).

Achtenberg proposed a change in HUD's chain of command to recognize the assistant secretary as "the Departmental official with sole accountability for the program." Under her proposal, the assistant secretary would be given full authority to assign staff, including legal staff. FHEO staff in regional and field offices of HUD would come under her line authority. That staff now reports through the regional FHEO directors to the regional administrators.

Proposal That FHEO Decide About Issuing Charges

In another strong departure, Achtenberg proposed that FHEO should have the responsibility for determining whether HUD should issue a charge of discrimination. This would remove the HUD Office of General Counsel from that process. That office had been the target of criticism by fair housing advocates.

FHEO has responsibility for investigating discrimination complaints. But there is dual authority between the FHEO and the General Counsel for deciding if there is reasonable cause to issue a charge of discrimination. Achtenberg says this dual authority fails to make some official responsible.

Achtenberg also recommended creation within FHEO of two new specialty units to investigate mortgage lending and insurance discrimination.

Achtenberg said creation of a strike force inside her office of investigations, to end mortgage lending discrimination would be one of the first orders of business after her confirmation.

In written responses to Senate Committee questions she said the special unit would investigate charges of discrimination against mortgage lenders. The section would also use the HUD Secretary's power to initiate investigations. Data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) and similar sources could trigger such investigations. Critics has complained that the Secretary's power to initiate has been little used.

Achtenberg said HUD would issue regulations "which define discriminatory acts in mortgage lending and in appraisal practices." She said these regulations would provide guidance for Federal and state courts in cases brought by governmental agencies and by private attorneys. They would also guide HUD staff in their own HUD investigations.

Responding to other Senate Committee questions Achtenberg suggested:

  • that the HUD Secretary should be much more aggressive in initiating complaints against: systemic housing discrimination.
  • that separate units be created for HUD's Fair Housing Initiatives Program and for their Fair Housing Assistance Program.
  • that fair housing groups be funded to immediately send out testers once HUD receives a discrimination complaint.
  • that it may take two years before her reforms may enable HUD to process most complaints within 100 days. She said this is because HUD may not have enough staff and because of a heavy workload.

Achtenberg plans energetic, imaginative enforcement at FHEO

At the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) Conference in Washington, D.C., on June 30, Roberta Achtenberg, said "a new order has appeared (at FHEO) - a system that will favor the claimant."

She said, "I have talked with the President, and he has given me his full support in the area of fair housing ... We must have energetic, imaginative enforcement of civil rights laws ... The President recognizes there is potential political backlash, and he will stand by me ... There is nothing more important then fair housing ... We must work on deconcentration ... My responsibility is reformulating the bureaucracy to make Title VIII a reality ... I recognize that there is not the best relationship between HUD and FHIP recipients ... It is exceedingly important that this public/private partnership must be improved ...

I am ideologically and idealistically committed to fair housing ... We value your (private fair housing organizations) efforts ... I recognize your sacrifice ... You are an important actor in fair housing enforcement in this country ... I will work toward fewer administrative closings ... There is a 60% increase in the President's budget and 100% when we add in the amount (appropriated) by the House of Representatives for FHIP ... I am working feverishly to reconstruct FHIP, and I recognize the bureaucratic failure ... Government will take a leadership role in fair housing; the sky is the limit ... A new order has appeared; a system that will favor the claimant ... We must get our Title VIII house in order ..."

(Excerpts from Achtenberg's speech as reported in the August Metro Eve, from the Cleveland Metropolitan Strategy Group.)

Extensive Involvement in Housing

Prior to her HUD appointment, Achtenberg was an elected member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She chaired the Housing and Land Use Committee and the City Services Committee.

Achtenberg's efforts as a San Francisco legislator include the establishment of occupancy standards for city residential units to help prevent discrimination against families with children; enhanced protection against wrongful eviction of tenants; support of construction of affordable housing for low-income families; ensuring small business competition for city contracts; more effective compliance monitoring by the City Human Rights Commission.

Worked 15 Years as Civil Rights Attorney

Achtenberg led San Francisco's efforts to enhance CDBG funding for domestic violence shelters. Before her 1990 election to the Board of Supervisors, Achtenberg worked more than 15 years as a civil rights attorney. She was a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School, directed the Lawyer Skills Training programs at the New College of California School of Law, and later became dean of that school.

Achtenberg was born July 20,1950, in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Her law degree is from the University of Utah Law School where she was elected to the Order of the Coif.

The Senate debated Achtenberg's nomination over three days before confirming her 58 to 31. Opponents claimed she would use her HUD position to advance the radical agenda. Her supporters replied that she is well qualified to lead the country's fair housing program based on her experience as a civil rights attorney.