ERC Testifies at Public Hearing in Support of DC Bill Strengthening Enforcement of DC Human Rights Act

By Susie McClannahan
February 19, 2020

Susie McClannahan, Fair Housing Rights Program Manager at the ERC, testifies to DC Council in support of B23-73.

The DC Council held a public hearing on February 19, 2020, for B23-73, The Attorney General’s Civil Rights Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019. The bill was introduced last year by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on behalf of Attorney General Karl Racine. The bill aims to strengthen the ability of the Office of the Attorney General to enforce the DC Human Rights Act.

Originally passed in 1977, the DC Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and educational institutions in Washington, DC. There are a total of 21 protected traits in the District, including race, color, national origin, familial status, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression, along with many other protected characteristics.

B23-73 clarifies that the Office of Attorney General (OAG) has the authority to enforce the DC Human Rights Act. The bill makes clear that the OAG’s Civil Rights Section can take action when it uncovers discrimination, such as filing a lawsuit on behalf of the public in DC Superior Court. The bill also allows for the OAG to collect penalties and fees for the District from entities that commit discrimination. The entire text of the bill is available here.

The Equal Rights Center supports the passage of B23-73, The Attorney General Civil Rights Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019, as it is an important step to eliminating discrimination in the District. As discussed by participants at listening sessions conducted by the OAG last year, discrimination, unfortunately, continues to act as a common barrier to DC residents. It is critical that the District proactively work to identify and eliminate discrimination so that residents are able to live free from discrimination. 

Currently, the primary ways to enforce the DC Human Rights Act are by filing a complaint with the Office of Human Rights (OHR) or by filing a lawsuit in court. Yet relying on aggrieved parties to file complaints is woefully inadequate when it comes to undoing the legacy of decades of discriminatory policies and practices. Aggressive enforcement of DC’s anti-discrimination laws by the Office of the Attorney General reduces the burden on individuals to report discrimination and can result in more systemic remedies to ensure discrimination does not occur again. The passage of this bill will ensure the OAG is able to hold entities who discriminate accountable for their actions and showcase the District’s commitment to its obligation under federal law to affirmatively further fair housing.

The hearing was held before the Committee on Government Operations on February 19, 2020, at 9 am. Susie McClannahan, the Fair Housing Rights Program Manager, testified on behalf of the ERC.

Full transcript of the ERC’s testimony:

The Equal Rights Center’s Testimony Regarding B23-73: The Attorney General Civil Rights Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019

Testimony Delivered Via Email at governmentoperations@dccouncil.us and In-Person at the Public Hearing

My name is Susie McClannahan. I am a DC resident and the Fair Housing Rights Program Manager at the Equal Rights Center. The Equal Rights Center (ERC) is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington, DC and nationwide. For many years, the ERC has conducted intakes with District residents alleging housing discrimination, investigated individual and systemic cases of housing discrimination, pursued enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and the DC Human Rights Act (DCHRA) as needed, and conducted education and outreach about fair housing protections and requirements. 

The ERC appreciates the opportunity to testify in support of B23-73, the Attorney General Civil Rights Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019. The passage of this bill will strengthen the District’s ability to enforce the DCHRA and demonstrate the city’s commitment to its obligation under federal law to affirmatively further fair housing. 

DC Government Must Be Proactive in Fighting Housing Discrimination

Currently, the DCHRA is primarily enforced through filing a complaint with the Office of Human Rights (OHR) or filing a lawsuit in court. Yet relying on aggrieved parties to file complaints is woefully inadequate when it comes to undoing the legacy of decades of discriminatory policies and practices. This bill will clarify another way for the District to fight housing discrimination.

While the OHR complaint process provides an important opportunity for individuals to seek restitution, it cannot undo the harm individuals have experienced due to discrimination. As former OHR Director Mónica Palacio stated, “It’s a lot to take on when you file a complaint. It’s probably one of the worst things that has happened in someone’s life and now they have to come spend 12 months talking about it. Not everyone will choose to do that.” ERC clients in the OHR process frequently share that they are reporting discrimination so others in the future won’t undergo what they did. For them, there is no restitution that could justify the pain of their experiences.

Another difficulty with filing a complaint or lawsuit as an individual is that the remedies available to them generally focus on individual restitution. The Office of Attorney General, however, will be able to seek more systemic relief, such as requiring a housing provider to implement a non-discrimination policy, attend fair housing training, or conduct record-keeping, to ensure compliance with the DCHRA.

While there are significant steps that OHR could take to improve the complaint process, the burden of eliminating housing discrimination should not rest upon individual aggrieved parties. It is critical that the District government works to proactively eliminate discrimination. The passage of B23-73 would reduce the burden on victims of discrimination by making clear that the OAG can enforce the DCHRA and seek significant relief on behalf of the public when it encounters violations. 

Rampant Source of Income Discrimination in the District Requires Systemic Action from DC Government

The frequent occurrence of blatant incidents of housing discrimination in DC highlights the need for a systemic solution. In 2018, the ERC identified about 130 advertisements in the District with likely discriminatory language based on source of income, such as “No vouchers accepted” and “no section 8.” The ERC lacks the resources to file an OHR complaint every time it encounters a discriminatory ad. It would also be unsustainable for OHR to process so many complaints. The 2019 draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice notes that OHR lacks the staff and resources to adequately investigate incidents of housing discrimination, meaning that significantly increasing their caseload would be untenable.

Yet fighting source of income discrimination is critical to desegregating the city. Over 90 percent of voucher holders in DC are African American, despite making up only 48 percent of the city’s population. These demographics are inextricably linked to a long history of housing policies that fostered wealth building for white families in neighborhoods rich with opportunity, and that pushed African American families into exploitative, substandard rental housing in neighborhoods starved of resources. It is 71 times more likely that a landlord’s denial of a housing voucher will exclude African American renters than white renters in DC. As such, discrimination against housing voucher holders in the District is tantamount to race discrimination.

The OAG’s efforts have already shown promising results in fighting systemic discrimination, which is why it is critical to make explicitly clear that the OAG has the authority to enforce the DCHRA. Over the last few years, the ERC has shared with the OAG its concerns about rampant discriminatory advertising based on source of income. Partially as a result of these conversations, the OAG partnered with Apartments.com and Zillow to prevent ads from being posted that include discriminatory language based on source of income. Last week the OAG also reached a $900,000 settlement with Curtis Investment Group, a property management company that posted “NOT ACCEPTING VOUCHERS AT THIS TIME” in online ads. These proactive enforcement efforts will hopefully result in a dramatic reduction of the number of advertisements in the District being posted with language discriminating against housing voucher holders.

Addressing deeply entrenched housing segregation requires sustained, dedicated action by DC government to enforce the fair housing rights of local residents. The passage of this bill will ensure the OAG is able to hold entities who discriminate accountable for their actions and showcase the District’s commitment to fair housing. The ERC appreciates the opportunity to provide this testimony and offer its support of The Attorney General Civil Rights Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019.

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If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email info@equalrightscenter.org.

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