ERC Testifies at DC Office of Human Rights Budget Hearing
By Susie McClannahan
March 29, 2022
The DC Office of Human Rights (OHR) 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 budget for FY2023. This testimony was submitted to the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities on March 25, 2022.
Since submitting testimony on OHR’s proposed FY2023 budget, the ERC has been advised that the 10 investigator positions are not being cut from OHR, but will be paid for via funding provided to DOES.
Equal Rights Center Urges Increased Funding for DC Office of Human Rights in FY2023 Budget
Testimony Delivered Via Email at email@example.com
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. The Equal Rights Center (ERC) appreciates the opportunity to testify for the FY2023 budget hearing for the Office of Human Rights (OHR).
The ERC calls on the DC Council and Mayor Bowser to 1) restore OHR’s funding to FY2022 levels, 2) provide additional funding so that the agency can investigate discrimination complaints based on disparate impact claims, and 3) provide an additional $446,319 to fund OHR’s added enforcement obligations under the Eviction Record Sealing Authority and Fairness in Renting Amendment Act of 2022.
OHR is tasked with the important work of ensuring that the civil rights of those who live, work, and visit the District are respected and valued. OHR is responsible for the enforcement of the District’s civil rights laws, conducting education and outreach with the public so they are aware of their rights and how to report violations, and educating companies and government entities about their obligations under these laws. As part of its role, OHR is responsible for the enforcement of many civil rights laws, including the DC Human Rights Act (“HRA”). The HRA makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of 21 protected classes in housing, employment, public accommodations and/or educational institutions.
Unfortunately, discrimination remains a widespread problem in the District despite having some of the most expansive civil rights protections in the country. In a 2019 report issued by the Office of Attorney General, residents expressed significant concerns about “housing discrimination in all its forms, racial discrimination across areas of life, bias-motivated violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, discrimination against religious minorities and immigrants, and potentially discriminatory government actions.” In FY2019 and FY2020, OHR received a total of 2,375 inquiries from the public about alleged discrimination and docketed 908 cases.
OHR’s enforcement of the District’s civil rights laws is a key component to ensuring that individuals are able to live, work and visit DC without fear of experiencing discrimination. Without strong enforcement efforts, it is likely that incidents of discrimination and violations of the civil rights of DC residents, employees, and visitors will increase. In order to ensure that OHR is able to fulfill its mandate, the DC Council and Mayor Bowser must commit to fully funding the agency.
II. OHR Needs Increased Funding to Ensure Strong Civil Rights Enforcement
Historically OHR has been underfunded, which has prevented it from achieving its mandate to respond to discrimination in DC. Due to a significant increase in the agency’s FY2022 budget, OHR recently underwent a process of organizational restructuring in order to streamline the administrative complaint process, address a backlog of complaints, and enhance staff expertise in specific complaint areas. Prior to restructuring, complaint intakes and investigations were conducted by separate teams. OHR now has three enforcement units, which are responsible for conducting both intakes and investigations of complaints, in order to process complaints more quickly. Each unit houses intake specialists, investigators, an attorney advisor and an enforcement manager. OHR is also working to hire staff for a fourth enforcement team solely dedicated to addressing the current backlog of cases.
This structure only succeeds if all roles are filled. If OHR is unable to fill all the roles under the new structure due to budget cuts, the delays in the administrative complaint process will only worsen. Complainants will continue to wait for months, even years, for their cases to be resolved and may lose faith with the process before their case reaches a resolution. Many complainants have shared that the process is time-consuming, resource intensive, confusing, and emotionally draining. The burdensome nature of the OHR process may even be a deterrent to individuals seeking to file a complaint. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that OHR’s staffing roles are fully funded so that the agency can address the multi-year backlog of complaints and process new complaints in a timely manner. Yet, the Mayor’s budget proposal cuts the agency’s Full Time Employees (FTEs) from 79 to 68, including cutting 10 investigator positions. Understaffing OHR will exacerbate delays in processing complaints and erode the public’s trust in the agency.
In fact, OHR should be funded at a higher level than it has been in previous years to ensure it can fulfill its mandate effectively. The ERC testified during OHR’s performance oversight hearing that OHR is refusing to accept housing discrimination complaints based on disparate impact claims. 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. 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. OHR Interim Director Hnin Khaing stated during her testimony that the agency does not accept disparate impact claims because they are resource intensive and the agency lacks the staff capacity necessary to investigate such claims. As such, the ERC urges that OHR received additional funding so that the agency has the capacity to accept such complaints.
Finally, the ERC urges that OHR receive an additional $446,319 to fund the agency’s additional enforcement obligations under the recently passed Eviction Record Sealing Authority and Fairness in Renting Amendment Act of 2022. The new law improves protections for tenants in multiple ways, including by requiring housing providers to provide more information before and during the tenant screening process and strengthens source of income-based protections for voucher holders. However, OHR will not be able to enforce provisions of the law until it receives additional funding.
The ERC pleads with the DC Council and Mayor Bowser to increase the budget for the DC Office of Human Rights (“OHR”) by restoring the FY2022 funding and adding additional funding to the agency so that it can carry out its mission. The District prides itself on being a place that is welcoming to residents and visitors of all identities and has adopted some of the strongest civil rights protections in the country in order to safeguard that status. However, those protections are meaningless if the primary agency tasked with enforcing them is chronically underfunded as OHR has been.
If the District of Columbia is committed to eliminating discrimination and welcoming people of all backgrounds, including DC-born residents who have faced rampant displacement rooted in systemic racial discrimination, then the DC Council and Mayor Bowser must fully fund OHR so that the agency is well-equipped to enforce the District’s civil rights laws.
 Office of the Attorney General. Community Voices: Perspectives on Civil Rights in the District of Columbia, Nov. 2019, oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-11/Civil-Rights-Report.pdf.
 DC Office of Human Rights. Biennial Report, Nov. 2021, ohr.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ohr/publication/attachments/OHR-V5-9-28-2021.pdf.
 Mayor Bowser, FY2023 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan: Volume 1 Executive Summary, March 16, 2022, p. 71, app.box.com/s/z5u3mckktiz8px535q2h3x8zj6w3slw0.
 The Equal Rights Center, ERC Testifies at DC Office of Human Rights Performance Oversight Hearing, March, 2, 2022, equalrightscenter.org/testimony-dcohr-2022/.
 Committee on Government Operations and Facilities, Performance Oversight Hearing of the Office of Human Rights, February 24, 2022, www.youtube.com/channel/UCPJZbHhKFbnyGeQclJxQk0g/live.
 Office of the Budget Director, Fiscal Impact Statement, January 4, 2022, static1.squarespace.com/static/5bbd09f3d74562c7f0e4bb10/t/61d474226f04aa102ad607a7/1641313314328/Mendelson+-+ANS+-+B2496+Eviction+Record+Sealing+Authority+Amendment+Act+%28Jan+4+2022%29.pdf
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.