Didi Hager has never received a call from someone who has felt discriminated when trying to find housing in Manatee County. Yet the family services manager at Manatee County Habitat for Humanity has seen rental units that are “absolutely deplorable.”
During home visits for Habitat for Humanity, Hager has met with tenants paying upwards of $900 a month for places with no air conditioners, broken refrigerators and mold in the shower.
“In my estimation, it is criminal what these landlords are charging for places that are falling down around them,” she said. “They don’t qualify for a conventional mortgage and they are just exploited by landlords that know they have to have a place to live and can charge whatever they want to charge.”
These units are often segregated in certain parts of the county such as Oneco and Samoset.
“There are sections that are more segregated than others,” she said. “I do think that is a problem.”
As a way to identify barriers to fair housing, county officials are developing a plan for “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” in Manatee. Fair housing means protecting “people from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability and familial status,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It is going to include achievable tasks that we are going to be able to handle as a county government structure,” said Denise Thomas, the county’s housing and community development coordinator. “We can make an impact and make a difference and that is what we are trying to do.”
Areas along the urban core, both north and south of the Manatee River, are distinctly segregated in Manatee County, according to Bill O’Shea, project manager in the community development division of the county’s neighborhood services department.
“We have segregation of low-income people and housing, and the whole idea is that no matter what income level or race, you should have the same opportunity as anybody that has a higher income,” he said. “You are entitled to that under fair housing.”
Unlike previous fair housing plans that the county developed in 2005 and 2010, Manatee County will be held more accountable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the plan for the county to receive Community Development Block Grant funding.
“HUD has taken a different viewpoint on fair housing and they are going to make local government accountable,” Thomas said. “They are going to look for outcomes. We definitely want to have some measurable outcomes.”
Manatee County will be measured annually on whether it is making improvements, according to O’Shea.
“We are going to have action shown every year,” he said. “In this plan, we are going to have to think a little more focused and find things that are within our ability to achieve.”
Seeking resident input
As county officials work on the Fair Housing Plan, which will be submitted to HUD in January, they want to hear from residents about the housing market and barriers that may exist. A Survey Monkey has been created on the county’s website, mymanatee.org, so the public can give feedback until 5 p.m. Aug. 1.
“They are the ones that are experiencing it, and they are bringing that knowledge to surface so we can look at what can be done,” Thomas said. “We need to know what is done currently. Their voice is crucial to this process to identify the right things to identify the right remedies.”
Most of the information-gathering will be informal, but there will be an opportunity for additional public feedback before the plan goes before the county commission for approval.
“That survey is trying to see what the current state of fair housing in Manatee County is by people telling us of their experience of fair housing,” O’Shea said. “This is the first step to figure out how big the problem is. It is a problem everywhere. I think HUD’s goal is to do away with segregation.”
With the heightened accountability and responsibility that will now be required of Manatee County, this is not just another fair housing plan to put on a shelf, Thomas noted.
“It is citizen driven,” she said. “We don’t want to guess on it. We want them to tell us.”
Discrimination in Manatee
Based on feedback received from poeple being served at Turning Points in Bradenton, there seems to be a lot of discrimination taking place, according to Adell Erozer, executive director of the non-profit organization that provides services to Manatee’s homeless. And she points directly at landlords.
“They can pretty much cherry-pick who they want,” Erozer said. “While it might not look like discrimination, they are going to choose that person that will give them the greatest return. They are making a lot of assumptions, and that is where discrimination comes in many times.”
Discrimination is to blame for the county’s housing problems, says Commissioner Charles Smith.
“That is why we have the lack of affordable housing,” he said. “The housing situation in Manatee County has not been to the forefront. Most developments that we are approving, residents can’t afford to move in. Manatee County hasn’t done their fair share to make sure they have quality affordable housing. Affordable housing must be countywide in the unincorporated area.”
The Manatee County Housing Authority works to educate residents about fair housing through periodicals and newsletters, according to Willie Calhoun, the authority’s executive director. Within the next couple weeks, the agency will have a film showing in the office lobby as a tool to educate the public about fair housing.
“I think it is important that we help educate them, so they will know that housing is for everybody for everywhere,” he said. “It is not just in one location. Fair housing should be across the board for everybody. We try to educate the landlord as well as the tenant.”
The lack of affordable housing only exacerbates the homeless problem, Erozer said.
“We are talking about people that need a place to live while they are working,” she said. “I think that as your number of units available has decreased and the number of people competing for the number of units has increased it certainly has gotten worse because of the numbers. It is certainly more difficult for our people that we are trying to help find housing.”
Affordable equals fair
Some of the fair housing barriers can be addressed by building more affordable housing, O’Shea said.
“I think for us our best chance of probably doing something positive and getting more integration throughout the community is taking advantage of new development that is occurring,” he said. “It is occurring at a rapid rate.”
While the county has made some strides on the barriers identified in the 2010 Fair Housing Plan, there is no money allocated toward fair housing despite being mandated to have a plan as recipients of a federal grant.
“It is kind of hard to fund these things and do them at a local level because there is no money attached to them,” O’Shea said. “We identified things that we didn’t really have control over. The local fair housing enforcement would be a money issue.”
More affordable housing should be integrated into newer communities, he added.
“We’ve tried to encourage people to take advantage of our affordable housing program,” he said. “I think we can do a better job.”
Affordability is the most prominent barrier in Manatee County, according to Calhoun.
“Affordable housing is more of an issue right now,” he said. “That is the biggest complaint we get right now from our clientele.”
Through the housing authority’s Housing Choice Voucher rental payment assistance program, they serve 1,250 people in Manatee County but at least 900 are on the waiting list.
“There is not a whole lot of inventory out there,” Calhoun said. “The biggest concern right now is the inventory, availability of units. That is a big issue for existing clients and waiting list clients.”
Until affordable housing is built to help address the issues, there will continue to be issues, Smith said.
“The bottom line is Manatee County has to have action money set aside for affordable housing, and we don’t have that in place,” he said. “We need to have a plan in place. There is no plan to build affordable housing. ... Affordable housing is a public safety issue. Going into 2017, it is going to be the biggest issue.”
What is Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing?
- Taking proactive steps beyond simply combating discrimination to foster more inclusive communities
- Providing access to community assets for all persons protected by the Fair Housing Act
- Addressing significant disparities in access to community assets
- Overcoming segregated living patterns
- Supporting and promoting integrated communities
- Ending racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty
- Ensuring compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws