Former HUD officials call for a fair housing agency

Two former Cabinet secretaries have called for the creation of an independent agency to enforce fair housing, which they say is getting short shrift in the Housing and Urban Development Department.

Former HUD chiefs Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros co-chaired a panel that led a six-month investigation into the state of fair housing nationwide. The panel -- called the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity -- on Tuesday released a report with recommendations for improving the system. "HUD is in the awkward position of policing its own programs and partners," said Clinton HUD Secretary Cisneros, citing the need for a separate entity to oversee fair housing. "There is a built-in conflict in the present structure." Cisneros appeared at the Washington briefing with other panel members. Kemp, who served during the George H.W. Bush administration, was unable to attend the event.

Under the proposal, the new enforcement agency would replace HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, which is led by a politically appointed assistant secretary who oversees about 600 employees. The new entity would focus solely on fair housing enforcement and education as well as ethical lending practices. The panel said this agency should have three key components: career staff with experience and competence in fair housing; an advisory commission of stakeholders appointed by the president with input from the Senate; and adequate staff and resources. "Such an agency would be empowered at the public policy level to work with the HUD secretary to advance proactively all of the fair housing issues that are critical to building stronger communities," the report's executive summary stated.

The mortgage crisis, spurred by predatory lending and the rapid growth of the sub-prime mortgage market, led to the bailout of the financial industry and was a major cause of the current economic chaos. These events have put housing issues at the forefront of the national policy agenda, with fair housing an important component of the overall economic recovery plan, the panel said. "For years -- for years -- the civil rights communities have been warning about predatory lending and sub-prime mortgages," said commission member Okianer Christian Dark, associate dean of academic affairs and a professor at Harvard University's law school. Many victims of predatory lending and recipients of sub-prime mortgages are minorities, senior citizens and members of the disabled community. The Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination in housing under Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. According to the report, there are at least 4 million fair housing violations annually in the country.

Cisneros and other panel members acknowledged the inherent red tape and political tension in creating a government entity and have proposed an interim measure. They advised HUD to divide the current Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity into two units, separating enforcement from program compliance. Under the proposal, the Office of Fair Housing, led by a deputy secretary, would administer enforcement and education initiatives and include investigative staff and lawyers, handle rapid response to urgent cases and improve training and quality assurance in investigations. An assistant secretary would lead the Office of Civil Rights and retain program compliance responsibilities for fair housing. A third office, the President's Fair Housing Council, would work with both divisions.

Cisneros said on Tuesday that the department's record on fair housing was not "stellar" during his tenure and the issue traditionally has taken "a fifth wheel role" in HUD operations in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The office is "frequently a source of annoyance" for the rest of the department, he said, because its enforcement and compliance roles often pit it against HUD's traditional partners in industry, advocacy and government.

Kim Kendrick, assistant secretary of fair housing and equal opportunity, issued a statement on Tuesday defending the department's commitment to enforcing the law, and noting that HUD is on the "same team" as the commission when it comes to ending housing discrimination and promoting diversity. But Kendrick did not address the report's specific recommendations, including the proposal to create an independent fair housing agency.

HUD files charges regularly against groups and individuals violating fair housing laws. Many of the court documents are available on the department's Web site. Kendrick, confirmed in 2005, has streamlined the complaint process and raised awareness of the need for accessible housing for people with disabilities.

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