Today (4/24/02) Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell gives her first state of the city address. It was just a few months ago Mayor Campbell gave her inaugural address and told citizens one her administrations goals was to improve living conditions create a unified community. Those charged with that mission acknowledge fair housing is a big obstacle - and not just for Clevelanders. The Ohio Civil Rights Commission had 442 cases referred to them last year that's up slightly from the year 2000. Akron and Cleveland made up about half of the referrals. But local power is limited when it comes to righting such wrongs. 90.3 WCPN's Tarice Sims reports.
Tarice Sims: When you're in the market for a new home there are a lot of things to consider. Affordability is a big factor along with location, but rarely does one think about whether or not the landlord will like them or not. In Betty Brown's case her landlord liked her a little too much - to the point where Brown felt her housing agreement came with added strings attached.
Betty Brown: I called him and from that very first phone call he had said if I rent this house to you, will you be my sweetie pie. And it's like what, you know I couldn't believe that he was asking me this and then when... after I told him I said what? He say if I let you have this house he say would you be my sweetie pie. I say look I don't use my body to pay for things I have certificate here.
TS: Brown rented a home in Cuyahoga Falls roughly 30 minutes outside of Cleveland. She says her landlord made frequent unannounced visits to her home, even trying to physically pen her during routine inspection of her home.
BB: I felt like a prisoner. I really did - I couldn't go out, I couldn't do nothing because this man is out there. And there were times he was just sitting out there watching me.
TS: Brown says she didn't know what to do. She felt alone and was unsure of whom to complain to at first. To her surprise harassment from a landlord turned out to be a fair housing issue - one of several defined under the Federal Fair Housing act. Refusal to rent or sell housing based on race, sex, color, national origin, family status or handicap is against the law. In addition it's illegal for anyone to threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with anyone's rights. Diane Citrino is an attorney with the Cleveland-based Housing Advocates, a non-profit organization that focuses on regional housing issues. She says unfortunately it's not enough to just have a law on the books.
Diane Citrino: The law pretty much relies on what are called private attorney generals, basically somebody has to feel that maybe there's been a complaint or maybe they've been discriminated against. They have to go file a complaint either with an administrative agency or talk to a private attorney who then can try and see if there's something there.
TS: And some people follow that advice. Last year in Cleveland there where over 800 fair housing complaints made to the city, most of which were referred to other major organizations including HUD and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. The city spends $150,000 to investigate housing issues. The majority of the cases deal with racial discrimination. Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell says the only way to overcome that race barrier is by finding common ground.
Jane Campbell: While we have extraordinary ethnic backgrounds and we cherish out heritage whether that's Polish or African American or Irish or what that fundamentally what makes a good neighbor. Someone that cares for their children, someone that cares for their property.
TS: Mayor Campbell has made changes in how the city handles fair housing issues. The office of Consumer Affairs now runs the department. Nilsa Avila investigates complaints with the fair Housing department for the city. She says Cleveland is a historically segregated city and many citizens have decided opinions about who should live where. So, they try to supplement their diversity initiatives with information people need about housing rights.
Nilsa Avila: Once we get the community better educated they'll be more aware of what their rights are and they'll react a lot quicker. Because unfortunately what's been happening in the past is that, many times when people come down to us it's past the time limit that we can take their charge so we can't do anything. You know a lot of times I don't know if it's because of fear, because of lack of knowledge but people don't really strive to take care of their rights in regards to housing.
TS: In addition to educating citizens, the city is trying to become substantially equivalent through HUD to be able to demand financial compensation on behalf of victims. And, this year Summit County doubled the budget by for their Fair Housing contact service from $20,000 to $40,000 and created a plan of action that centers around getting feedback from the community. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN News.