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Northampton Housing Authority, 3 others, settle housing discrimination complaints



@kate_ashworth
Friday, December 01, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Housing Authority is among four public housing authorities in western Massachusetts that allegedly discriminated against Latino applicants for housing and have settled complaints, a state advocacy group says.

The Massachusetts Fair Housing Center filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016 alleging that the authorities violated the Fair Housing Act and Title IV of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.

The Holyoke-based center conducted tests that showed preferential treatment was given to English-speaking, white applicants compared to Spanish-speaking applicants. Some of housing authorities failed to offer applications in Spanish and referred applicants to seek language services from another agency when they needed assistance, according to the center.

“In most cases, the person who spoke in Spanish could not get answers to their questions,” Meris Bergquist, the center’s executive director, said.

Local housing authorities in Northampton, West Springfield, Greenfield and Westfield settled on a voluntary agreement in November. The housing authorities deny allegations of discrimination.

“We do not discriminate,” Northampton Housing Authority Executive Director Cara Clifford said.

In 2015, the center conducted three rounds of tests of the Northampton Housing Authority. For each test, a Latino tester asked three questions in Spanish and, later that day, a white tester asked the same questions in English. Bergquist declined to go into specifics, but said the Northampton Housing Authority was unable to meaningfully communicate with the Spanish-speaking testers.

Clifford said there are people on staff — including herself — that speak Spanish. If an applicant speaks a language no one on staff can speak, Clifford said they use interpreting and translation services by Language Line Solutions. The company can interpret over 200 languages over the phone, through video and in person.

She added that there were factual errors in the center’s complaint, but declined to go into detail.

Under the agreement, the four housing authorities will provide notice of the availability of interpreters; provide applications in Spanish, Chinese, Haitian, Creole, Khmer and Portuguese; create or maintain a language access plan that is available to the public at the housing authority and on-line; and mandate staff training and the appointment of a language access coordinator.

“The agreements signed by the four housing authorities will equalize access for applicants who do not speak English well and help break down the barriers that exclude and limit housing opportunities based on national origin or race,” Bergquist said in a statement.

Clifford said the Northampton Housing Authority already adheres to the terms, and had been before the center conducted its tests. She added that while the authority doesn’t have a dedicated language access coordinator, she said the housing authority has met the needs of Latino applicants for housing.

“We have policies and plans in place,” Clifford said, referring to the language access plan.

Western Massachusetts has the highest rate of housing segregation between Latinos and whites in the U.S., according to the center.

“Housing authorities contribute to the high rate of housing segregation in our region when they fail to offer equal access to applicants with limited ability to speak English,” the center said in a statement.

Where someone lives determines a number of life opportunities, Bergquist said, such as where children go to school.

She described the settlements with the four housing authorities as “a significant step forward.”

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.