Individuals with disabilities made up nearly 60 percent of housing discrimination complaints in 2017, a new report from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) found.

Individuals with disabilities made up nearly 60 percent of housing discrimination complaints in 2017, a study from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) found.

The study, published on April 30, found that disability-discrimination accounted for 57 percent of complaints, race-discrimination accounted for 19 percent, family status accounted for 9 percent, national origin accounted for 6.8 percent, gender accounted for 6.7 percent, color accounted for 1.5 percent and religion accounted for 1.3 percent.

“There are a lot of disability organizations across the country that do a great job in educating the community of individuals with disabilities about their rights and protections under the law,” said NFHA President Lisa Rice, explaining why most of the complaints reported are for individuals with disabilities.

Rice also said that there are many ways people with disabilities can be discriminated against and the protections are extremely broad. The law protects individuals associated with a person with a disability or anyone who requests accommodations for a disability.

Many of the complaints also come in the form of housing developments not meeting federal requirements. Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development filed charges against two Ohio developers for failing to meet accessibility requirements when designing and constructing 32 multi-family housing communities throughout the state.

“It can be very difficult for persons with disabilities to live in housing that does not meet the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction requirements,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity. “If, for example, a unit has stairs at its entry, that unit is effectively unavailable to a person who uses a wheelchair; it’s as if the property has a sign saying, ‘no wheelchairs allowed.’”

The Department of Justice, according to the report, has filed 90 lawsuits against multi-family housing developers since 1991, alleging they built housing that’s non-compliant with design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

The lawsuits have resulted in more than $28 million in funds to compensate the victims. NHFA, in that same timeframe, has filed eight cases resulting in 20,000 units now being accessible and more than $5 million invested to make additional homes more accessible.

There’s additional discrimination beyond the categories listed in the Fair Housing Act, as state and local jurisdictions can add protected classes. NHFA found there were also 680 complaints filed based on income source, 175 complaints based on age and 153 complaints based on sexual orientation.

Other complaints included discrimination for gender identity, marital status, military service status and against domestic violence victims.

There were 28,843 complaints total filed last year, the most since 2010, although the 10-year average of complaints filed since NHFA started compiling the data in 1996 is 28,527 — so the number of complaints has mostly remained steady. However, only about 1 percent of instances of discrimination are actually reported, according to Rice.

“People don’t know and understand fair housing,” she said. “There has been a dearth of education. We really haven’t been educating people to the degree we should about their fair housing protections.”

She pointed to a high-profile case of housing discrimination that really wasn’t reported as a violation of the Fair Housing Act: when basketball player LeBron James had his home vandalized with racial slurs. A lot of violations are more clandestine.

“What happened to the James family, most acts aren’t like that,” Rice said. “Most are done with a handshake and a smile so people don’t even know they’re being discriminated against.”

HUD has a backlog of cases, which leads to many people filing cases they don’t see immediate action on, said Rice, who added that the delay has prompted cynicism toward the system.

Most of the reported complaints come from local fair housing organizations. The report found that 71 percent of complaints come from fair housing organizations, compared to just 4.5 percent coming from HUD.

Rice urged the real estate industry to take a strong stand in support of the Fair Housing Act, 50 years after it passed as part of the Civil Rights Act.

“Realtors for decades and decades helped to promote segregation in America,” Rice said. “That helped drive the degraded society that we have today.”

That National Association of Realtors (NAR) recognized its own past support of segregation at its midyear conference in Washington, D.C., this week. Throughout the week, the trade association celebrated the progress made in the 50 years since the act was passed, as well as the important steps it can take moving forward.

Email Patrick Kearns

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