ERC Testifies at DC Office of Human Rights Performance Oversight Hearing

By Susie McClannahan
March 2, 2022

The DC Office of Human Rights enforces local and federal human rights laws, including the DC Human Rights Act, by providing a legal process to those who believe they have been discriminated against. The ERC has filed dozens complaints of discrimination with the agency, and appreciates the opportunity to testify to DC Council regarding the agency’s performance. The hearing was held virtually before the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities on February 24,  2021, at 12 pm. Fair Housing Rights Program Manager Susie McClannahan testified on behalf of the ERC.

Screenshot of the virtual hearing shows Susie McClannahan speaking. Councilmember Robert White and panelist Tyrone Handley listen. A Spanish interpreter is also visible.

Full transcript of the ERC’s testimony:

Equal Rights Center’s Testimony Regarding the Performance of the DC Office of Human Rights

My name is Susie McClannahan. I am the Fair Housing Rights Program Manager at the Equal Rights Center (ERC). The ERC appreciates the opportunity to testify for the DC Council performance oversight hearing of the Office of Human Rights (OHR).

The 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, D.C. and nationwide. For many years, the ERC has conducted intakes with individuals alleging housing discrimination in DC, investigated individual claims and systemic forms of housing discrimination, pursued enforcement of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the DC Human Rights Act (HRA) as needed, and conducted education and outreach about fair housing protections and requirements. The ERC, as a complainant or non-attorney representative for individual complainants, has filed more than 20 housing discrimination complaints with OHR in the last three years.

Disparate Impact is a Critical Tool to Address Discrimination, Yet DCOHR Refuses to Use it

The Fair Housing Act and the DC Human Rights Act allow for fair housing claims based on a disparate impact theory. Policies and practices by housing providers that appear neutral could be considered discriminatory under a disparate impact analysis if they have a disproportionate impact on a group of people protected by federal and local fair housing laws. Disparate impact provides a powerful tool to address systemic forms of discrimination because it makes it possible to identify and challenge more pernicious, difficult to see cases of discrimination. For example, because over 90% of the city’s voucher holders are Black, discrimination towards voucher holders in DC is also race-based discrimination.[1] Additionally, overly broad criminal record screenings of rental applicants may be discriminatory on the basis of race and/or national origin as the screenings are disproportionately likely to serve as a barrier to renters of color.

Given historic and ongoing discrimination that has yielded racial segregation on par with “apartheid era South Africa”, the District should use all the tools at its disposal to promote integration and equity in housing.[2] However, OHR recently refused to accept a race-based housing discrimination complaint filed by the ERC that used a disparate impact analysis, claiming that the agency lacked capacity to accept such a complaint. Furthermore, the agency told the ERC it has never accepted a complaint based on a disparate impact claim.

OHR Should Launch Director’s Inquiries to Confront Systemic Discrimination

Relatedly, OHR could more proactively address housing discrimination and reduce the burden on victims of discrimination by conducting Director’s Inquiries. Blatant housing discrimination occurs in the District with frequency, especially on the basis of source of income. Discrimination against housing voucher holders is serving as a mechanism of racial segregation in the District and must be stamped out.[3] We cannot expect voucher holders to shoulder the burden of addressing discrimination and we cannot address a systemic problem through individual complaints. OHR should fully use its authority to launch Director inquiries in order to respond to rampant source of income discrimination.

OHR’s Process is Difficult to Navigate for Aggrieved Parties Reporting Housing Discrimination and Could be Improved by Making Some Temporary Pandemic Changes Permanent

OHR’s administrative complaint process provides DC residents with an opportunity to report and challenge housing discrimination. In theory the process is relatively straightforward—after a complaint is filed, OHR conducts an intake and attempts to mediate the complaint. If mediation fails, the complaint moves into investigation. At the conclusion of an investigation, OHR issues a finding stating whether there is probable cause that discrimination occurred. If OHR finds probable cause, either one further attempt at conciliation is made before the case is forwarded to the Human Rights Commission or the parties elect to move the case to DC Superior Court.

Yet many complainants have shared that the process is time-consuming, resource intensive, and confusing—to the extent that it deters them from filing or following through on complaints. The public health emergency has presented unprecedented challenges and we recognize the difficulty for OHR to operate in a remote work environment. However, the issues being raised are not new—the ERC and others have voiced concerns for years.

Even in our role as an organization highly trained in filing OHR complaints and assisting residents through the process, we experience repeated difficulties and delays. In recent years, this has included OHR refusing to accept certain complaints on what appears to be a discretionary basis. Seven current ERC clients have open complaints that are more than a year old, the oldest one dating back to 2019. As a result of the difficulties and delays, ERC staff frequently grapple with how best to counsel clients who have experienced real harm due to illegal discrimination, as we are often skeptical of the likelihood that they will be able to obtain equitable relief through OHR.

However, many temporary changes OHR made due to the public health emergency have improved the process for complainants and should be made permanent. For example, the ERC commends OHR for abolishing the requirement that charges be notarized last year, which it did after initially suspending the requirement at the start of the pandemic.

Another opportunity to improve the process is conducting appointments by phone or video call. Previously, complainants were expected to attend appointments in person. This places a significant burden on individuals who are experiencing housing instability, who do not have paid time off, or who do not have easy access to transportation. Complainants would benefit from the continued option of participating by phone or video. When OHR moves to return to normal operations, the agency should review each step of the complaint process to determine which temporary policy or paperwork changes could be made permanent to reduce unnecessary burdens on complainants.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. The ERC welcomes any opportunity to work in collaboration with OHR and DC Council to ensure that victims of discrimination are able to seek relief for the harm they’ve experienced.

References:

[1] Adjami, Nick. “Source of Income Discrimination Perpetuates Racial Segregation.” 19 Aug. 2020, https://equalrightscenter.org/voucher-discrimination-perpetuates-segregation/.

[2] DC Department of Housing and Community Development, et al. Draft For Public Comment – Analysis of Impediments To Fair Housing Choice Washington, D.C., 27 Sept. 2019, p. 315, https://dhcd.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dhcd/publication/attachments/D.C. Draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 9.27.2019 (1).pdf.

[3] Adjami, Nick. “Source of Income Discrimination Perpetuates Racial Segregation.” 19 Aug. 2020, https://equalrightscenter.org/voucher-discrimination-perpetuates-segregation/.

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The Equal Rights Center (ERC) — a national non-profit organization — 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. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org. 

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