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VT Digger Report on Meeting of the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Last week the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a public meeting to discuss housing discrimination in Vermont. Below is an excerpt from a VT Digger report on the panel discussion that took place:

Mary Brown-Guillory, president of the Champlain area National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told a statewide civil rights panel Monday that her organization has received an “avalanche” of discrimination complaints. In the month since they’ve been “open for business,” Vermont’s first NAACP chapter has received at least 50 complaints. Most involve discrimination, she said, including housing discrimination. “Individuals do not want to sell their property to people of color,” Brown-Guillory said. Housing discrimination and possible solutions were the topic of Monday’s panel discussion meant to brief the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, according to their website. The commission’s goal is to give information pursuant to the development of national civil rights policy and improve enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Brown-Guillory said minority college students and recent grads have to use a friend’s name to apply for housing because landlords won’t rent to people with ethnic-sounding names. Her son, a recent college graduate, wasn’t able to find a landlord willing to rent to him in Vermont because he is African American, she said, and he ended up moving to New York City. “It is a big concern to me that young people of color are not able to find housing here,” she said. “I mean, I know that we’re trying to diversify the state.” Vermont is among the whitest states in the country with 95 percent white residents, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data. Brown-Guillory said that she also knows of two instances where people were discriminated against for their religion. “The property owner makes the decision on who they want to rent to and it doesn’t matter what your credit score is or if you are willing to pay six months’ rent up front,” she said. Diane Snelling, chair of the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the commission, said in an Aug. 3 press release that past reports by the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the commission have brought about “significant policy changes” in Vermont and that the committee’s review of fair housing issues is “timely and compelling.” Vermont Legal Aid, a civil rights nonprofit law firm, recently released data from a study conducted by its fair housing program. The study shows preferential treatment toward white residents without children and without an apparent disability, said Marsha Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discriminating against an individual because of their race, color, national origin, disability, sex, religion or familial status. Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project has found anecdotal evidence of unlawful discrimination in Vermont, said staff attorney Rebecca Plummer. While conducting the tests related to national origin and race, the discrimination found was often subtle, and sometimes the testers didn’t even know they were being discriminated against, Curtis said. When it came to tests concerning familial status and disability, discrimination was less subtle, she said. Sometimes there were even direct discriminatory statements. Curtis said this helped to explain why the Housing Discrimination Law Project and the Vermont Human Rights Commission receive more complaints of discrimination based on disability and familial status than race and national origin. The testing was largely conducted in Chittenden County, and while other areas were tested as well they didn’t have enough statistical data to be compared accurately to Chittenden County, Curtis said. Plummer said that there should be mandatory fair housing training for all Vermont housing providers. One of the panelists, David Sagi, an American Disabilities Act program manager, said housing units and apartment complexes in Vermont could be more accessible for elderly or disabled people. Eight of 10 accessibility audits conducted by Vermont Legal Aid in 2012 and 2013 on newly-constructed, multi-family housing units found some level of noncompliance with the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction accessibility requirements, Curtis said.

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