By Elias Cohn, Senior Coordinator of Strategic Initiatives

I am excited to begin my work as the Senior Coordinator of Strategic Initiatives at the Equal Rights Center. The ERC’s Strategic Initiatives program encompasses a wide range of areas that the ERC has been working in for years- including fair employment, immigrant rights, and LGBTQ rights. It also supports the ERC’s work to identify and act on emerging opportunities to advance civil rights causes outside the organization’s more established fair housing and accessibility rights programs. In line with the ERC’s strategic program priorities, the core of my work will be applying civil rights testing in service to some of the country’s most pressing civil rights issues. I am eager to apply the effective tools ERC has developed over the years in these new spaces and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this talented and committed staff.

I have worked in the non-profit sector since 2006, helping to run affordable housing programs in Washington DC. My time in this field coincided with a rapid transformation of the region into one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. For the average visitor to DC, the influx of wealth can mostly be seen in the shiny new condo buildings on the skyline, blocks full of gourmet restaurants, and newly paved bike lanes. But rising rents and costs of living have put enormous pressure on the city’s long-time lower -income residents.

My journey from direct service provider to civil rights advocate began through my work with thousands of these DC residents struggling to pay rent. Through this work, I came to understandthe ways in which discrimination has exacerbated a crisis caused by the shortage of affordable housing. In a city with skyrocketing housing prices, the refusal of housing providers to comply with fair housing regulations—such as source of income protections—has further limited housing options for some of the area’s most vulnerable residents. Worse yet, I found that discriminatory rental practices tend to undermine the programs and organizations committed to assisting those most in need. Ask any case manager, domestic violence shelter provider, or social worker in the city and you will hear stories of clients facing widespread discrimination in their housing search.

Prior to the ERC, I served as Fair Housing Coordinator at Housing Counseling Services, Inc. I worked with service providers, as well as consumers and landlords, to identify and respond to discriminatory housing practices. This job led to collaboration with the Equal Rights Center and the Washington Lawyers Committee on several projects, one of which led to a widely publicized lawsuit against one of DC’s most notorious landlords. Through the use of testers, the ERC was able to corroborate the discrimination claims of one of our clients—a homeless, elderly veteran.

Collaboration with the ERC over the years helped me appreciate the importance of civil rights testing and the results that can be achieved when organizations work together toward a common cause. I am thrilled to now work for one of the nation’s leading testing organizations as part of the ERC team.

If you or someone you know has experienced housing discrimination in the greater Washington metro area, you can report it to the Equal Rights Center by calling 202-234-3062, emailing or filling out a form on our website.

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