ERC Testifies at DC Office of Human Rights Performance Oversight Hearing

By Susie McClannahan
March 16, 2021

Screenshot of Susie McClannahan reading testimony at the DC Office of Human Rights virtual Performance Oversight Hearing.

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, 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 March 5,  2021, at 12 pm. Susie McClannahan, the Senior Fair Housing Rights Program Manager, testified on behalf of the ERC.

Full transcript of the ERC’s testimony:

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

Testimony Delivered Via Email at facilities@dccouncil.us and Virtually at the Public Hearing

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 has filed more than 20 housing discrimination complaints with the Office of Human Rights in the last three years.

OHR’s Process is Difficult to Navigate for Aggrieved Parties Reporting Housing Discrimination

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, conciliation is attempted. If conciliations fail, the complaint is certified for a hearing with the Human Rights Commission or is moved to DC Superior Court.

Many complainants have shared that the process is time-consuming, resource intensive, and confusing. The public health emergency has presented unprecedented challenges and we recognize the difficulty for OHR to operate in a remote work environment. Yet the issues being raised are not new—the ERC and others have voiced concerns for years. OHR Director Monica Palacio has alluded to some of these difficulties, stating, “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.”[1]

Even in our role as an organization highly trained in filing OHR complaints and assisting residents through the process, we experience repeated, inexplicable difficulties and delays. In recent years, this has included OHR refusing to accept certain complaints on what appears to be a discretionary basis that may even contradict the DC Human Rights Act. There are times when OHR fails to notify us, especially in a timely manner, about the status of a complaint or why certain decisions have been made. As a result, we frequently grapple with how best to counsel clients who have experienced real harm due to illegal discrimination, as we are skeptical of the likelihood that they will be able to obtain equitable relief through OHR.

OHR Should Make Some COVID-19 Changes Permanent

On the other hand, many of the temporary changes OHR has made during the public health emergency have improved the process for complainants and should be made permanent. For example, OHR has suspended the requirement that charges be notarized. The ERC and other advocates have previously voiced that this requirement can be difficult for many complainants, especially if they are experiencing housing instability, have low incomes, or do not have access to an institution that provides notary services. We commend OHR for suspending the notarization requirement and urge them to make this change permanent.

Another example is conducting appointments by phone or video call. Previously, complainants were usually 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. While there can be significant benefits to in-person appointments, complainants would benefit from the 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.

OHR Should Launch Director’s Inquiries to Confront Systemic Discrimination

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.[2]

This will only be possible through decisive action from OHR and other government agencies. 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.

DC Council Should Launch an OHR-Focused Working Group

The ERC echoes others’ testimony in urging the DC Council to form a working group to provide more meaningful, ongoing oversight of OHR. The working group could be led by a Councilmember and should also include representation from OHR, advocates, and community members. This working group would collaborate to identify concerns, implement reforms, and check in on progress.

For decades, the District has chosen to adopt broad civil rights protections that represent the progressive values of its residents. But those protections are only as meaningful as our willingness to enforce them proactively and OHR is a critical stakeholder when it comes to our ability to do so. As such, performance oversight of the agency must be meaningful.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. The ERC looks forward to working with the Council and OHR to address housing discrimination and to building a better discrimination complaint process for all involved.

References:

[1] Wild, Whitney, et al. “Advocates to DC Landlords: Stop Telling Section 8 Voucher Holders ‘No’.” WUSA, 18 Sept. 2018, www.wusa9.com/article/news/investigations/advocates-to-dc-landlords-stop-telling-section-8-voucherholders-no/65-595848115.

[2] 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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