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Report notes poverty, lack of affordable housing

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, March 15, 2019

Pockets of poverty, lack of affordable housing, and a lack of investment in old neighborhoods are among the problems Elizabeth City officials have documented in a newly updated Fair Housing Assessment.

The assessment, which was presented to City Council on Monday, is the product of months of research and public outreach on fair and affordable housing.

City staff compiled the assessment to meet a requirement of the roughly $904,000 grant the city received to replace part of the city's raw water transmission line. A staff memo explains the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which awarded the grant, required the city demonstrate it is “affirmatively furthering fair housing.”

In the Fair Housing Assessment, city staff reported trouble in getting people to attend public meetings about fair housing, one in December and one in February. They also received few responses to surveys.

However, even though survey respondents were whiter and more affluent than the city as a whole, they still revealed housing problems in the city.

“When surveyed, some residents indicated that lack of income and unaffordable housing is an issue,” the report states. “Although public housing is offered, waiting lists are long, sometimes taking years before there is availability. Some developments will not accept Section 8 vouchers.”

Section 8 vouchers are the federal financial assistance that low-income families can get to help them live in “decent, safe and sanitary housing,” according to benefits.gov.

The assessment also noted community opposition is a factor in the lack of affordable housing.

The city also reported only about a fourth of survey respondents were black, Hispanic or described themselves as “other.” Black residents are about half the city's population, and they are more likely to be unemployed than white residents, based on the report's compilation of U.S. Census data.

The assessment does report that Elizabeth City has low rates of housing segregation, based on the mix of races within Census tracts. However, it finds “economic pressures” contribute to what segregation remains, and renewal is lacking in some neighborhoods.

“(There is) lack of private investments in specific neighborhoods as investors prefer new housing,” the assessment states. “The older neighborhoods are left in disrepair as the low-income residents are unable to afford maintenance and improvements for their homes.”

The assessment also identifies which part of the city is considered a “racially/ethnically concentrated area of poverty,” based on HUD's definition of the term. It’s the Census tract that runs west of South Road Street and includes the Debry housing complex and part of Roanoke Avenue, and its poverty rate is disproportionately higher than Pasquotank County's, the document states.

The assessment also includes the city's goals for improving housing access and affordability, including supporting increased enforcement of code violations — which could compel investment in old and substandard structures — and working to raise awareness of housing issues with local and state officials.

As a “fair” and not just “affordable” housing assessment, the city also reviewed housing discrimination. Only about 10 percent of survey respondents said they or someone they knew had been discriminated against in housing, with most of that discrimination coming from rental property owners or managers, according to the survey.

About a third of respondents also reported not seeing any information regarding fair housing programs, laws, or enforcement, despite efforts by the city and other organizations to publicize that information.

In one goal for continued education, the city commits to hold more fair housing workshops for the public, and to hold at least one such workshop each year for landlords and real estate agents.

The assessment also highlights federal laws that prohibit housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, disability, sex, familial status, and national origin. Landlords may not deny sale, rental or financing of dwellings on those grounds. Public accommodations operated by private housing entities also cannot discriminate against disabilities, it notes.

State law also requires landlords to allow handicapped tenants, at the tenant's expense, to make reasonable modifications to dwellings. The law also forbids retaliating against tenants who exercise fair housing rights.

The assessment also notes that the Fair Housing Project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, as well as the state's Human Relations Commission, help people with housing complaints.

Jeffrey Dillman is co-director of the Fair Housing Project. In an interview Wednesday, he said his organization helps people with housing discrimination cases statewide. It closed almost 200 such cases last year, he said.

Dillman also said the most common type of housing discrimination now is for disabilities. Landlords must accommodate both physical and mental disabilities, he said. The next most common kind of discrimination is based on race. Landlords often lie or use pretense in racial discrimination, he said, so the Fair Housing Project has testers who can inquire about housing availability. If a unit is available for a white applicant but not a minority one, there may be a violation, he explained.

Dillman acknowledged that housing discrimination often affects poor and vulnerable populations — those who may be least able to contest illegal behavior. He said the Fair Housing Project and its attorneys are available to discuss potential housing discrimination confidentially, and for free. When landlords discriminate based on disabilities, or because of familial status such as having kids, the project can often resolve the issue by writing a letter.

If a case does go to court, Fair Housing Project will represent someone for free, he said, adding there's no income limit on who it will represent in fair housing cases. The project will also work to protect clients from retaliation, such as landlords trying to evict them.

For more information, call the Fair Housing Project at 1-855-797-3247. To view the city's assessment, see the March 11 agenda item at cityofec.com.

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