A city committee will have new power to investigate and fine incidents of housing discrimination under an ordinance that's headed to the City Council.
The Finance and Personnel Committee voted 3-0 Monday night to give the city's Affirmative Action and Human Rights Commission remarkable new powers. Under the ordinance, the volunteer commission will be able to hold hearings on housing discrimination complaints and fine landlords or homeowners up to $25,000 for violating discrimination laws.
The ordinance essentially localizes housing discrimination complaints that had been handled by the federal government in the past. Federal complaints took months, even years, to resolve. The local ordinance should give city residents a faster resolution to housing discrimination complaints, officials said.
Monday night's vote was a long time coming for Ron Thomas, chairman of the city's Affirmative Action and Human Rights Commission. He's waited 17 years for the city to grant the commission some teeth in enforcing discrimination laws. The proposal would update an ordinance that is 37 years old.
"This brings us a heckuva lot closer to today's climate," Thomas said, adding: "Let's get this on the books so we can be a commission that can do something other than mediate, which doesn't work in every case."
Under the ordinance, complaints about housing discrimination in the city could be filed directly with the Affirmative Action and Human Rights Commission. The commission would then form a three-person subcommittee to hold a hearing on the complaint, complete with witnesses and testimony. The committee would then make a ruling, which would serve as recommendation to the full commission. The commission will make the final decision and levy fines for violations.
Assistant City Attorney Scott Letteney, who sits on the commission and wrote the new ordinance, said the proposal gives the commission a "stronger enforcement mechanism."
"It has more authority and strengthens its ground so we can fight discrimination in housing," he said.
"The purpose isn't to take lots of money from people," Letteney added. "It's to end discrimination."
While happy with the new ordinance, Thomas said it was the commission's second choice. It's first choice was to get the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development to sign off on the ordinance and give the city full authority to handle discrimination complaints. But HUD officials sent back the ordinance last year with minor changes - the ordinance almost exactly mirrors federal law on housing discrimination - and now simply won't make any decision on the proposal. Rather than wait for HUD, the commission is attempting to push forward the changes on their own.
Racine would be the only city in the state to take this step, Letteney said.
(Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, the city was making more progress under the Bush administration than they have under the Obama administration. The transition between the presidencies setback work for months, even years, and the city has received little contact from HUD on the ordinance.)
Alderman Q.A. Shakoor II said he would support the ordinance with the public's understanding that discrimination doesn't mean it only helps one group of people. The ordinance actually prohibits discrimination by age, sex, race, color, veteran's status, disabled veteran's status, religion, disability, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, familial status or economic status.
"I hope people clearly understand this is for all 80,000 people in the City of Racine," Shakoor said.
Read the proposed ordinance below:
Racine Finance and Personnel Committee Agenda 5-24-10