Northampton Housing Partnership column: Know your fair housing rights

  • Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Housing discrimination in the Hampshire County area happens more often than people might think.

Every year complaints are filed with the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center in Holyoke and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and some are substantiated. In some instances, those involved in the rental or sale of housing are purposely violating the law, while in other cases some people are not fully knowledgeable about the federal and state fair housing laws and regulations. This is especially true for Latinos, African-Americans, families with young children, and the LGBT community (for which there have been some recently enacted new protections).

The federal Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968 and prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing based on a person’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability. For us who live in Massachusetts, the state also has added a number of other protected categories — sexual orientation, transgender and gender identity, military or veteran status, age, marital status, ancestry, receipt of Section 8 or other public assistance, and genetic information. This means that landlords can’t inquire or refuse to rent based on the fact someone falls into one of these categories.

Additionally, real estate agents, landlords and others cannot “steer” people by only showing them apartments where others “of their kind” live, or create different lease terms or conditions, or make discriminatory statements.

With a few exceptions, this also means that families can’t be discriminated against because they have children, and it is illegal to refuse to rent to a family with a child under 6 years old even if there is lead paint present in the unit. The landlord is required to remove/cover any lead hazards and rent to a family meeting their usual rental criteria. All homes built before 1978 are likely to contain lead paint, and 75 percent of the homes in Northampton were built before this date.

In the past few years, Massachusetts also has enacted new housing rights for victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking. These victims now have the right to certain protective actions and to not experience retaliation from a landlord for taking these actions such as breaking their lease, having apartment locks changed, obtaining a restraining order, or calling the police.

These long overdue enacted laws and regulations are one of the cornerstones of a just society, promote integration and are essential for a person’s quality of life. However, for these protections to be realized there needs to be sufficient affordable housing available and the whole community needs to be aware of the rights of tenants and potential home buyers.

Currently, based on data from the federal government that tracks segregation by race in cities and their surrounding metro areas, Hampshire and Hampden counties have the highest rate of segregation in the United States between Latinos and whites, and is ranked 22nd in segregation between African-Americans and whites. There is more work to do.

As members of Northampton’s Housing Partnership, a board of volunteers appointed by the mayor, we serve as the city’s fair housing committee in addition to our role to support and recommend strategies to increase affordable housing. We sponsor fair housing educational opportunities and assist the city to assess compliance with these laws.

These laws and regulations are extensive and can be confusing. For this reason, the Housing Partnership is sponsoring free educational workshops that are open to anyone in the area — tenants, landlords, social service providers, and property managers. The first workshop will be held from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Nov. 14 in Room 18 at Northampton City Hall, 210 Main St. Another workshop will be held at night in the spring.

On the city of Northampton’s website (northamptonma.gov), under Boards and Commissions, Housing Partnership, is a list of resources for renters, landlords and homeowners. The resource list includes information about where you can get legal help, along with contact information for local programs that provide housing and energy assistance, as well as social services that address other needs that impact housing.

If you are interested in supporting efforts to preserve and create new solutions to address Northampton’s housing needs, please contact Peg Keller, the housing and community development planner, at pkeller@northamptonma.gov, or join us on the first Monday of each month from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in Room 18 of City Hall. Our meetings are open to the public and all are welcome.

Jim Reis and Patrick Boughan are members of the Northampton Housing Partnership. The other members of the partnership who contributed to this guest column are Gordon Shaw, Michael Roy, Richard Abuza, Rev. Todd Weir, Ali Brauner, Kyla Prior, Mark Goggins, Edgardo Cancel and Rebecca Lockwood.