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Obstacles to Fair Housing Still Plague WNY's Poor, Minorities and the Disabled, UB Professor Finds

Release Date: February 11, 2011

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Kelly L. Patterson, UB assistant professor of social work

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The right to fair housing in Western New York remains inconsistent, rife with barriers and impediments that include a shortage of services for those facing discrimination, an inadequate supply of suitable apartments and a lack of transportation, according to a University at Buffalo School of Social Work researcher studying local and national fair housing policy.

"The consensus among focus group participants was that fair housing information was not reaching all target populations," says Kelly L. Patterson, UB assistant professor of social work and co-author of "How Local Public Administrators, Nonprofit Providers and Elected Officials Perceive Impediments to Fair Housing in the Suburbs: An Analysis of Erie County, New York."

"It is disquieting to realize that 40 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, discrimination remains a mainstay in suburban housing markets in Erie County," Patterson says.

Patterson's study, published in the current issue of Housing Policy Debate, a publication on social policy, housing and community planning issues, addresses the "highly fragmented system for circulating information about affordable housing." Patterson says this fragmented system is among the biggest impediments to obtaining fair housing and contributes to a number of insurmountable obstacles.

"The inconsistency in the dissemination to fair housing information is really the major impediment for people to exercise their rights to fair and affordable housing, and get what the law says they are entitled to," Patterson says.

Patterson's findings resulted from a study she did for the Erie County Community Development Block Grant Consortium and the towns of Amherst, Cheektowaga and Tonawanda. The research was mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a requirement for receiving federal funds.

The study includes a series of recommendations, conclusions and details on the structural, political and social conditions that prevent people from enjoying the equality they are entitled to under fair housing laws.

Among the most notable recommendations:

-- No way to get there. The issue discussed most among all focus groups interviewed was transportation. "There was general agreement that public transportation was limited in the suburbs," according to the study, "and this constituted a barrier to accessing fair housing, employment and other services."

-- Do a better job at getting the word out. This was one of if not the major conclusion of the study, according to Patterson. "Fair housing efforts in Erie County were hampered by fragmentation and poor dissemination of information about affordable housing," according to the study. "At the municipal level, local fair-housing officials were poorly trained and had limited capacity to handle housing discrimination complaints."

-- To NIMBY or not to NIMBY. Community resistance -- or what is commonly known as not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) -- is still very pervasive in Erie County, according to Patterson's study. "In some instances, residents heard about a proposed affordable housing development, attended a public meeting and voiced opposition to a project or rezoning issues," the study states. "In other instances, landlords refused to rent to individuals based on race, familial status, disability or source of income." Often, neighbors of proposed affordable housing based their objections on unfavorable stereotypes of people they thought lived in these housing developments, according to the report.

-- The responsibility rests with leadership. "One of the central findings from this research is that achieving these goals is highly dependent on the commitment of local administrators, nonprofit agencies and elected officials," according to the study. Leaders of this group must have resources and training to provide these services mandated by the law. They also must understand the connection between fair housing and how it is a human right and a means to social justice. "Without this commitment, fair housing will continue to face resistance from some and be given lip service by others," according to Patterson.

-- The clout of the federal government is key. The structural barriers that restrict fair housing will remain until federal intervention changes the status quo. "Without additional external mandates (from federal officials), and enhanced enforcement and external monitoring," the study states, "it is unlikely that a sea change will occur in local fair housing implementation. Indifference toward fair housing complaints led to perpetual buck passing by local government."

-- Opportunities to reform fair housing policy do exist. The major players of fair housing law -- local administrators, nonprofit agencies and elected officials -- need new tools to educate those on the front lines of fair housing laws and to better enforce these laws. "Funding for fair housing testing should be expanded in order to identify and correct violations of law before individuals become victims of discrimination," according to the study. "Testing should be accompanied by enhanced landlord training to curb discrimination in housing markets."

Even though there were laws and resources that protected and helped people facing discrimination, there was an often confusing and conflicting "patchwork of programs" that individuals had to navigate on their own. "When searching for this information, one has to navigate each municipality's system," the study states. "There is inconsistency throughout the county in how the information is received."

Patterson's study, which she co-authored with Robert Mark Silverman, associate professor of urban and regional planning in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, was based on research conducted in 2007-08 examining trends related to fair housing, as well as focus group interviews with local public administrators, nonprofit providers and elected officials. It centered on obstacles to fair housing rights in 40 suburban municipalities surrounding the City of Buffalo.

The researchers say the status quo was a "half-hearted" pursuit of fair housing goals.

"The question at hand is whether it is acceptable for fair housing goals to remain unmet and for individuals to continue to be disenfranchised based on their race, familial status, disability, source of income and other characteristics for another 40 years," the study states. "If it is not acceptable, then reform is essential."

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