Death of fair housing

Lack of regional support in Sacramento starves 51-year-old commission

Betty Gwiazdon is interim director of the soon-to-be defunct Regional Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission. Without the organization, people worry less well-off Sacramentans will be taken advantage of and won’t have a voice.

Betty Gwiazdon is interim director of the soon-to-be defunct Regional Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission. Without the organization, people worry less well-off Sacramentans will be taken advantage of and won’t have a voice.


In the end, they’ll say it went out with a whimper and a gavel bang.

After sucking life support for the past four months, last week, Sacramento County supervisors pulled the plug on the financially strapped Regional Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission, founded in 1963 to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants facing eviction and other housing crises.

March 11’s action was the result of a bloodletting that started well before, however.

The commission spent the past 33 years as a “joint powers authority,” governed by a board that included the cities of Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova, as well as the county of Sacramento. But because of budget constraints and claims that Fair Housing didn’t serve its residents, the cities stopped paying into the commission, resulting in an 86 percent dive in noncourt operations and leaving nearly $2.7 million in outstanding liabilities, a county executive staff report states.

The biggest financial blow was struck by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, which pulled its financial support in June 2013.

“It left this county sort of by ourselves,” said board Chairman Jimmie Yee.

By the end, only Sacramento County was an active participant. Unable to prop up the commission any longer, the board of supervisors agreed to phase it out by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

But there is still work to be done on the fair-housing front.

As part of the controlled dissolution, the work of defending renters from discrimination and unfair billing practices will soon scatter to an array of organizations, from the federal level down to community groups.

Chris Pahule, the county’s senior economic-development specialist, indicated an unknown number of providers will be selected through a government contract process to augment any remaining services that Fair Housing used to perform. Those contracts are estimated to be worth $120,000-$150,000, and will likely be overseen by SHRA, Pahule and county executive Brad Hudson said.

Likely candidates include the Pacific McGeorge Housing Mediation Center and Legal Services of Northern California, which already mediate certain kinds of landlord-tenant disputes in the city of Sacramento. SHRA officials justified withdrawing funding from the commission by saying McGeorge and Legal Services could do the job more effectively.

But Betty Gwiazdon, Fair Housing’s interim director, told SN&R her group was still helping city residents who didn’t qualify for both organizations’ restricted income levels.

Between July 2013 and early December 2013, Fair Housing served 588 Sacramento city residents, Gwiazdon said. This was after the city pulled its funding. During the month of February, the commission fielded calls from hundreds of people living in the former partner cities.

But all that cross-regional strife now yields to an uncertain future.

Supervisors stressed the word “seamless” in directing staff to make sure residents know who to contact with their housing and discrimination complaints. “That has to be the main focus moving forward, that someone who needs help isn’t left with no ability to otherwise take advantage of what used to be a great resource,” said Supervisor Phil Serna.

For some, the commission’s demise posed both challenges and opportunities.

Sacramento Housing Alliance executive director Darryl Rutherford described a tendency by the group in recent years to favor landlords over tenant rights. “I think what we do definitely need is a little bit more regulation,” he said.

He also offered his aid in organizing tenants so they can better represent themselves.

Jim Lofgren, executive director of the Rental Housing Association, which represents Sacramento Valley rental owners and property managers, advised creating an oversight body to collect information about how people access services and where they end up. “I think one of the things we’re trying to come to grips with is the data,” he said, citing duplication of services as one concern.

And then there’s the “human rights” role the commission pursued through its nonprofit arm, which investigated fair housing complaints, tested rental properties and performed annual fair-housing audits. Advisory Chairwoman Dana Mitchell said the county hadn’t yet outlined how it would address filling those gaps.

“There needs to be a voice for the voiceless,” she said. “And sadly, I think when the commission goes away, that’s one of the things we’re going to lose.”

Supervisors directed staff to come back with options. The commission will still live on as a legal entity, and supervisors expressed their desire to revisit the idea of a regional body to address fair-housing concerns.

That might be when, Mitchell suggested, the county revives the subject of human rights. “As much as I would like to think that we succeeded ourselves out of a job, which is the happy spin, things happen like the anti-gay laws get passed, or there’s violence and racial strife, and we’re reminded that the human-rights side of it is still necessary,” she said.