January 8, 2009

17 years in waiting, Affirmative Action Commission ready for new power

After 17 years, you can't blame Ron Thomas for being impatient.

The chair of the city's Affirmative Action and Human Rights Commission has been waiting since he joined the commission in 1992 for the body to gain real power to address housing discrimination in Racine. He'll have to wait at least another month.

The commission learned Thursday afternoon the federal government is still reviewing a proposed Fair Housing ordinance that empower the commission to handle discrimination complaints in the city. Now, those complaints are sent to a federal agency in Chicago or to state agencies in Madison.

Complaints range from lenders not following their own policies in lending to minorities to landlords doubling the rent from a published rate when a minority renter applies for an apartment, Thomas said.

Racine has 31 discrimination cases pending with four state or federal agencies, according to a monthly report from Morris Reece, director of Fair Housing in Racine. Twenty of those cases are before the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in Chicago, five are before the US Equal Rights Division, four are before the state's Department of Financial Institutions and two are before the Department of Regulation and Licensing.

Several of these cases have been pending for more than a year; some have been out there for two-plus years, Reece said.

All of those cases could be handled by the commission with approval of the new ordinance, Thomas said.

"Our current ordinance is extremely weak," he said. "It has no teeth. With the new we'll have powers. No complaints will be down in Chicago."

The city needs federal approve to take over discrimination complaints. The government's initial review passed Racine ordinance, Assistant City Attorney Scott Letteney told the commission. But a second review, one step up the change, is turning up problems with the proposal, he said. The scope of those problems is unknown.

Letteney said it's likely there would be no key changes to city's proposal because it passed the initial review, which tends to be tougher. He's hoping any requests from the Feds will not significantly change the ordinance.

If all goes well - which it hasn't for years, according to Thomas - the city will get the proposal back from the Feds within two weeks. That will give the commission time to review it at its February meeting and get it approved shortly after.

"I'm hoping for March," said Thomas, who sounded skeptical. "At first it was November, then January. Maybe we'll have something in February. You never know ... it's always something."

Further delays wouldn't be a surprise, he added. After all, the commission started talking about bringing the complaints under city control during Bill Clinton's first year in office. But a combination of federal delays, paired with delays in city government, prevented the ordinance from moving forward.

The new one took hold when Letteney and the commission made it a strong priority. Commission members Ray DeHahn and Thomas both complimented Letteney on his efforts at Thursday's meeting.

Now, they're hoping to move from words on paper to concrete action. Thomas is preparing to train the commission to handle complaints, and he and Reece both expect a stronger ordinance will help renters and home buyers in Racine.

It'd be a big change for a commission that had nothing listed under "New Business" on its latest agenda.

"We'll be a very busy commission" once the ordinance passes, Thomas said. "We're looking to make a big jump."


  1. Dustin, what powers will this commission have, other than handling them in house? Can they fine banks, throw landlords in jail etc...? Just curious.

  2. This sounds pretty scary. I hope they don't simply ASSume that everyone is a "racist" just because someone makes a complaint. I certainly hope someone is monitoring this division closely.

  3. When these cases are dealt with in Racine what will be the cost to taxpayers here (that currently gets outsourced to Chicago and other places)? Real housing discrimination is wrong and needs to be stopped but is this going to suddenly end up being a multi million dolar sinkhole filled with somewhat fictional complaints?