With situations such as 91-year-old Aliene Cox being forced out of what has been home these past 24 years, there is a lack of enforcement of fair housing rules taking place in Manatee County, according to Commissioner Charles Smith.
“I don’t see any teeth when we send this to HUD that we have enforcement,” Smith said. “These people can’t wait five years. They can’t wait until October. We have a responsibility to deal with this issue now. ...What I don’t see is any teeth being able to back that up. It’s just another plan.”
Cox’s lease was not renewed by Bayside Villas, just off 20th Lane East in Palmetto, despite never being late with her rent and never having a complaint, according to Cox’s daughter, Willie B. Davis.
In an email late Tuesday afternoon after the article was initially posted online, Bayside Villas property owner Robert Goodman said they’ve offered to re-rent to Cox “if we are able to clean and renovate her unit and remove her infested furniture.”
With Smith casting the lone dissenting vote on Tuesday, the Manatee County Commission approved the Assessment of Fair Housing Plan, which will now be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for review.
“The purpose of the plan is an assessment of what our issues are,” said Geri Lopez, the county’s redevelopment and economic opportunity director. “As part of the plan, we have identified this as an issue that this ordinance is lacking, that we need to look at it what teeth we need to add.”
Manatee County’s Fair Housing Ordinance, which was approved in October 2012, states that “complaints alleging discriminatory housing practices in Manatee County are currently filed with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for investigation and appropriate action and the Board of County Commissioners desires to eliminate duplication of administrative procedures and remedies and to codify the current process regarding fair housing complaints in Manatee County.”
“I don’t see anything where you are asking this board to intensify the enforcement locally of the housing condition and situation,” Smith said.
Fair housing means protecting “people from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and familial status,” according to HUD. Unlike previous fair housing plans that the county developed in 2005 and 2010, Manatee County will be held more accountable by HUD, which requires the plan for the county to receive Community Development Block Grant funding.
Nearly 36 percent of Manatee County residents who responded to a survey conducted as part of developing the fair housing plan say that housing discrimination is an issue in Manatee.
“Many residents who felt some of rental housing and affordable rental housing doesn’t meet minimum requirements as far as the building code goes,” Jason Smith, a consultant with Wade Trim who completed the plan, said of the survey findings collected as part of developing the plan. “Given there is a lack of affordable housing in Manatee County, some landlords tend to overlook some of these issues residents are having, stating that if they move out they know someone else will move in.”
In Manatee County, the identified fair housing issues include lack of local enforcement of fair housing laws, lack of affordable housing, segregation, blighted structures in certain areas and lack of code enforcement on substandard rental units.
As a way to address the issues, eight goals have been established, which range from strengthening the code enforcement on substandard rental units to increasing the availability of affordable housing to improving the enforcement of fair housing laws and ordinances.
Seven of the goals have been designated as high priority, which can be lofty, Jason Smith said.
“These are issues we have identified through the process that can’t be ignored,” he said. “The resources always fall short when it comes to the need in any community across the U.S. Leveraging resources I think it is important moving forward. We do have specific milestones that we would like to accomplish.”
The possibility of inspecting inside of rental units can be something the county can start working on immediately, Commissioner Carol Whitmore said.
“We’ve been talking about this for awhile,” she said. “We really need to get serious. The only way we can put teeth into it is to get into the homes.”
Instead of fair housing complaints being sent outside of the county, there should be an avenue locally, Smith said.
“We need to accept the complaints locally here in such and such office and after forward where they need to go or investigate locally, I’m not hearing that,” he said.
There are areas where Manatee County can improve, Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said.
“We do need to make some major changes,” she said.
There is a serious problem in Manatee County since many workers can’t afford to live in the county, Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace said.
“We are just going to have to sit down with developers and financial people,” she said. “There’s a reason they aren’t building it. We have to get rid of the roadblocks, at least temporarily, until we get some housing built.”
Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing goals for Manatee County
1. Identify opportunities to reinvest in R/ECAPs to eliminate blighted conditions and spur redevelopment — high priority.
2. Address contributing factors of poverty and segregation — high priority.
3. Strengthen code enforcement on substandard rental units — high priority.
4. Increase availability of affordable housing in Manatee County — high priority.
5. Expand fair housing education within Manatee County — high priority.
6. Provide services that improve financial literacy and access to financing for minority and low-income populations — high priority.
7. Improve the enforcement of fair housing laws and ordinances — high priority.
8. Provide better access to opportunity for protected classes through public services — medium priority.