What’s new at Montana Fair Housing . . .
A New Director?
As many of you might remember, Montana Fair Housing started out in 1988 as the Missoula Fair Housing Board. With the receipt in 1994 of our first Fair Housing Initiatives Program grant, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, we expanded our area of service from Missoula and surrounding counties, to serve all of Western Montana, changing our name to Western Montana Fair Housing. A few short years later, we were serving the state of Montana and again changed our name, becoming known as Montana Fair Housing.
Throughout Montana Fair Housing's existence, Susan K. Fifield, served the organization, starting out as a test coordinator and ultimately coming to serve as Montana Fair Housing's first, and until recently, our only Executive Director.
Sue had dedicated many hours and immense energy to the organization, building our first board and investigating and filing our first cases. Her resignation in July of this year was not only a shock, but for many of us, a great loss. Words cannot express our gratitude and sadness as she moves on to new adventures, and we all wish her well in her future endeavors.
From our new Executive Director . . .
I would like to introduce myself. My name is Bob Liston and I am a native Montanan, growing up in Helena. I acquired a disability following an automobile accident in 1971 and seemed to have led many various lives since then. The one that has led me to this place has been in the world of disability/civil rights and advocacy.
During the past 15 – 20 years, I have become very involved in the rights of persons with disabilities. After getting a Masters Degree at Michigan State University, I worked at two non-profit organizations in Michigan assisting people with disabilities. I assisted individuals to be as much a part of their community as possible, and as much as they wanted. This included work, recreation, obtaining the supports and services they needed, socializing, and transportation. But one of the biggest obstacles to overcome was finding affordable, accessible housing. If you don’t have housing, it is hard to be a part of the community.
My efforts included helping people find apartments that they could afford and get into. I was part of a consortium to bring about changes in mortgage programs that made it possible for people with disabilities to purchase their own homes—an accomplishment never before thought possible. I was also involved in ensuring that contractors and apartment complexes had accessible units for people who use wheelchairs, as well as offering education to apartment management that helped them to understand the needs of people with cognitive, communication and mental health issues.
It wasn’t too long before the Fair Housing Center of Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor, MI) asked me to be on their Board of Directors. I have always felt I had a relatively good understanding of the issues of “other” folks (African-American, women, single parents, Hispanic, etc.), but I was astonished at the amount of discrimination that was rampant in housing. Some people are ignorant of the issues and their responsibilities, while others are just plain bigots. This had a big impact on my “global” view of the need for more and better housing, and less discrimination. I also learned quickly that education and outreach can do a lot of good, but, in some cases, the need to file complaints and lawsuits against housing providers, including lenders and management companies, is necessary.
I am thrilled to have this opportunity to work for Montana Fair Housing, Inc. and with people who are so committed to the civil rights of all Montanans. I look forward to a bright future at MFH and, unfortunately, there is no lack of work to be done—we will be busy. But the cause is right. The time is now. Let’s do it together.
Other organizational news . . .
In June, Montana Fair Housing received a Fair Housing Initiatives Program grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that provided for the creation of a full service, private, non-profit fair housing organization in Wyoming. This office will serve the residents of the state of Wyoming, with the office being located in Casper.
That office is now open and the Executive Director, Whitney Wharton, has been hired, with a start date of September 11th. You can reach this office by writing, calling, or via e-mail at:
Wyoming Fair Housing
305 West First
Casper, WY 82601
Voice Mail: 307-266-6362
Website Address: http://wyfh.bizland.com
Best Practices Awards Received by Montana Recipients . . .
Each year the Department of Housing and Urban Development honors organizations and agencies around the country who have contributed to the furtherance of HUD's goals and objectives. Those recognized have provided innovative and cost effective programs, campaigns and/or enforcement proposals to the communities they serve. The following are a list of "Best Practices Award" recipients in Montana:
Local Winners: Sage Tower Retirement Apartments and Prairie Tower Apartments/Neighborhood Networks (Billings), Montana Preservation Project (Western Montana), HOME CDBG, Loan Leveraging with Mortgage Fun Set (Montana Board of Housing, Montana Rural Development and Montana HUD project), Fairview Disaster project, Montana Fair Housing (Accessibility), Off Net Picture Tel, Our House and the Spurlock Apartments, Montana Homeownership Network, Lolo Economic Development Initiative (a/k/a Travelers' Rest Preservation Project), Tim Kelly (Attorney at Law), Fort Belknap College Small Business Development Center, Montana's Water/Wastewater, ROCC Resource Occupation and Career Center (Action for Eastern Montana), Fort Peck Electric Utility Innovative Energy, Montana Fair Housing (projects in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming), and the Native American Properties Assessment Pilot.
Billings Community Housing Resource Board received a Geographical Winners award.
Best of the Best Winners included the Montana Preservation Project and the Montana Homeownership Network.
For more information on these organizations and/or agencies, or the projects implemented, see HUD's website at http://www.hud.gov.
Case Updates . . .
US v. El Dorita Limited Partnership, Collins Management, et al, 26 MFR 393, 6/9/00.
Alecia Ferguson moved to El Dorita Apartments in Kalispell in the spring of 1995. She was pregnant with twins diagnosed with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. They were born with low birth weights and health complications that required hospital care for an additional 5-7 weeks. They were discharged by Ferguson's doctor only on assurances that she would have round-the-clock assistance for the first months after returning home.
Collins Management had developed El Dorita under a HUD program and managed the complex which included Section 8 rent subsidies. On-site managers strictly enforced a "no overnight guests" rule which limited the number of nights that any nontenant could stay as a guest. Two violations could result in eviction.
Shortly after the twins were discharged the on-site managers issued a notice of lease violation to Ferguson for failing to comply with the overnight guest rules. Ferguson claimed that she needed assistance in caring for the twins. A second notice was issued in 11/95 which she appealed to the central office. The second notice violation was upheld and she was evicted. Prior to the scheduled lease termination her doctor called the management office explaining the condition of the newborns and the mother's need for help. Collins' regional manager advised that nothing could be done. Fergusons were forced to move just after Christmas 1995. Due to the eviction Ferguson Lost her Section 8 subsidy.
Ferguson requested assistance from Montana Fair Housing in finding housing and determining whether any of their rights had been violated. She filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Commission alleging that the owners of El Dorita, Collins Management, and management employees had violated her rights under the fair housing provision of the HRA requiring reasonable accommodations by housing providers to assure equal opportunity to persons with disabilities. MFH filed a separate complaint claiming diversion of its resources to counteract the discrimination against Ferguson and seeking affirmative relief against the owners and management company for failing to properly train its personnel in their duties under the fair housing laws. The complaints were dual-filed with HUD.
The State issued a "reasonable cause" finding in 1996 that there was substantial evidence to support the claims. HUD completed its investigation in 1999 and also issued "reasonable cause" findings, charging the owners and managers with violating Fair Housing Act provisions prohibiting housing Discrimination based on disability. The owners, management company, and management employees elected to have the case heard in Federal Court rather than before a HUD Administrative Law Judge. MFH also elected for Federal Court, indicating that it would intervene and consolidate the state claims with the federal claims.
The owners, Collins Management, and the management employees contended that Fergusons did not qualify as "disabled persons" under federal or state law, the requested accommodation was not related to any disabilities, and the property managers were required under HUD regulations to treat all tenants at the complex the same. Collins also claimed that delays in the HUD investigation had led to prejudices against the Defendants and had unnecessarily aggravated any damages to Fergusons.
The parties were unable to settle in mediation with Shelley Hopkins prior to the filing of suit by DOJ, but Plaintiffs and Defendants settled in the fall of 1999. A complaint was subsequently filed in Federal Court when DOJ and Defendants could not reach final terms on the affirmative relief order, but a consent decree was negotiated before Defendants were required to file their answer.
Settlement includes payment of $40,000 to Fergusons including fees and costs, $6,500 to MFH, and a $1,000 civil penalty to the US Treasury. Affirmative relief includes a two-year period for training and education of employees and tenants, with emphasis on preventing disability discrimination and requests for reasonable accommodation, revised tenant handbook, a new grievance procedure, and reporting responsibilities.
HUD disclaimer notice: The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under a grant awarded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The authors and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication.