Mary Brown-Guillory, president of the Champlain area National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told a statewide civil rights panel Monday that her organization has received an “avalanche” of discrimination complaints.
In the month since they’ve been “open for business,” Vermont’s first NAACP chapter has received at least 50 complaints. Most involve discrimination, she said, including housing discrimination.
“Individuals do not want to sell their property to people of color,” Brown-Guillory said.
Housing discrimination and possible solutions were the topic of Monday’s panel discussion meant to brief the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, according to their website. The commission’s goal is to give information pursuant to the development of national civil rights policy and improve enforcement of federal civil rights laws.
Brown-Guillory said minority college students and recent grads have to use a friend’s name to apply for housing because landlords won’t rent to people with ethnic-sounding names.
Her son, a recent college graduate, wasn’t able to find a landlord willing to rent to him in Vermont because he is African American, she said, and he ended up moving to New York City.
“It is a big concern to me that young people of color are not able to find housing here,” she said. “I mean, I know that we’re trying to diversify the state.” Vermont is among the whitest states in the country with 95 percent white residents, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Brown-Guillory said that she also knows of two instances where people were discriminated against for their religion.
“The property owner makes the decision on who they want to rent to and it doesn’t matter what your credit score is or if you are willing to pay six months’ rent up front,” she said.
Diane Snelling, chair of the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the commission, said in an Aug. 3 press release that past reports by the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the commission have brought about “significant policy changes” in Vermont and that the committee’s review of fair housing issues is “timely and compelling.”
Vermont Legal Aid, a civil rights nonprofit law firm, recently released data from a study conducted by its fair housing program. The study shows preferential treatment toward white residents without children and without an apparent disability, said Marsha Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discriminating against an individual because of their race, color, national origin, disability, sex, religion or familial status. Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project has found anecdotal evidence of unlawful discrimination in Vermont, said staff attorney Rebecca Plummer.
While conducting the tests related to national origin and race, the discrimination found was often subtle, and sometimes the testers didn’t even know they were being discriminated against, Curtis said. When it came to tests concerning familial status and disability, discrimination was less subtle, she said. Sometimes there were even direct discriminatory statements.
Curtis said this helped to explain why the Housing Discrimination Law Project and the Vermont Human Rights Commission receive more complaints of discrimination based on disability and familial status than race and national origin.
The testing was largely conducted in Chittenden County, and while other areas were tested as well they didn’t have enough statistical data to be compared accurately to Chittenden County, Curtis said.
Plummer said that there should be mandatory fair housing training for all Vermont housing providers.
One of the panelists, David Sagi, an American Disabilities Act program manager, said housing units and apartment complexes in Vermont could be more accessible for elderly or disabled people.
Eight of 10 accessibility audits conducted by Vermont Legal Aid in 2012 and 2013 on newly-constructed, multi-family housing units found some level of noncompliance with the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction accessibility requirements, Curtis said.
Sagi said disabled people must have accessible housing and public transportation to support employment. It’s hard for a disabled person who doesn’t have a job for any reason to survive solely on a disabilities check, he said.
“Accessible, affordable housing, to me, is needed at a location that serves a person in all aspects of their life,” Sagi said.
Plummer said people with mental health disabilities often need accommodations, but landlords sometimes jump to conclusions about their behavior, which may be misinterpreted as risky or dangerous.
Karen Richards, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said anyone who has been discriminated against can ask for an investigation into the situation.
“We’re basically complaint-based,” Richards said.
The commission can’t investigate complaints they don’t receive, she said.
Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Apartment Owners’ Association and an advocate for landlords, said that landlords don’t know what they’re saying or doing is discriminatory. Zaikowski said her office works to educate them on what’s legal and what isn’t.
When asked during the panel how she might attempt to address the barriers between tenants and landlords, Zaikowski said her organization has created a presentation on Vermont renter myths that she plans to “take on the road with her.”
Further outreach and education was recommended by most of the panelists as a possible solution to continued housing discrimination.