Bipartisan Commission Launched to Investigate Housing Crisis, Fair Housing

By Erika Schnitzer, Associate Editor Chicago–A national bipartisan commission has been launched to investigate the current state of housing in the United States. Co-chaired by former Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretaries Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros, the commission marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act. “This is a commission that looks at the important aspects of housing responsibilities in the country,” says Cisneros. “If there is segregation or discrimination, the housing market doesn’t work. We end up with hyper-segregation and a concentration of the very poor in certain places.” The commission, Cisneros explains, is an attempt to look at what the country has accomplished since the Fair Housing Act’s passage, what still needs to be done and how the Act may need to be modified in accordance to the present context.  “The problems of housing go far behind segregation,” Kemp acknowledges. However, issues of discrimination and segregation are more severe in today’s economic climate, when foreclosures are impacting various neighborhoods differently. The problem of fair housing is exacerbated when the economy begins to shrink, he says. “There’s a disproportionate impact of the present housing crisis on minorities,” Cisneros says. “A lot of minority families were put into subprime loans when they didn’t need to be.” Cisneros outlined a number of steps he believes important to take in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. These include helping people and communities hurt by the crisis, as well as those people who are going to be hurt, according to Cisneros, “two million people are sitting on adjustable rates that will increase between now and 2010, and three million are atleast one month behind in payments.” Additionally, restructuring loans and preventing such a disaster from occurring again by beginning with the root causes, such as unlicensed brokers, is key. Additional hearings will be held in Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta and Houston in coming months and will cover many subjects, including the impacts of urban revitalization, the foreclosure crisis and federal accountability and enforcement of fair housing laws. According to Kemp, there were at least four million fair housing violations last year but only 27,000 complaints were filed with HUD. Out of the 27,000 complaints, only 31 charges were brought up against the defendants. “We are calling for a federal enforcement of fair housing laws and civil rights acts,” he says. “We are holding these hearings to identify how far we’vecome and how far we have to go.” The commission, which is hosted by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP Legal Defense Educational Fund and the National Fair Housing Alliance, held its first hearing in Chicago yesterday.