Baltimore Neighborhoods checks for housing inequities Advocacy group opens office in Westminster

October 11, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a fair housing advocacy group, has opened an office in Carroll County to monitor inequities in home rentals and sales.

"Our only agenda is to see that fair housing laws are followed," said Patricia Staples, outreach coordinator. "We cannot change negative attitudes, but if landlords or home sellers are breaking the law, we can do something."

The private, nonprofit organization, which was started in Baltimore nearly 40 years ago, uses testers -- who assume the role of homebuyers or renters -- to help judge the local housing market.

"We have used trained testers for many years throughout the metropolitan area, in response to complaints and to monitor local communities," said Staples, who is well versed in federal housing laws and can process complaints and monitor local housing practices for sales and rental properties. "Testing can help us determine if fair housing laws are being followed."

The group has opened an office on Main Street in Westminster. It has opened another office in Harford County.

In Carroll County, Staples sees the lack of affordable housing as the most critical problem. Children of longtime county families often cannot buy a house, when the average selling price of a single-family home is about $180,000.

"When you don't have a variety of price levels, affordable to all incomes, it forces people to leave the county," Staples said.

Discrimination is rarely blatant, but subtle discrepancies and disparate treatment, like steering homebuyers to a particular area, exist, she said.

A federal Fair Housing Enforcement grant pays Staples' salary and operating costs for the office in Westminster. The staff in Carroll and Harford counties plans workshops and educational programs.

"If people know what the fair housing laws are, those laws are more likely to be followed," Staples said. "The majority of our time is helping people know the law."

With eight years experience, mostly in landlord-tenant issues, Staples estimates she has talked to 35,000 people facing all types of housing problems. Discrimination has been the most frequent problem; she has found recently that the disabled are increasingly the victims of inequity.

Shortly after opening the Carroll office three months ago, Staples heard her first complaint: racial discrimination.

"Discrimination of any kind diminishes us, because we are better than that," she said. "We aren't color-blind in this country, and we should be."

Complaints must be filed in writing before Staples will take any action. She can help the complainant negotiate with a landlord or refer the matter to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. On rare occasions, Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. takes legal action.

Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. is also looking for new members who can be "anyone who wants to live where all kinds of people live," said Staples.

"Diversity really does enrich people," she said. "We do a real service to our children, if we embrace diversity."

Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. is at 77 E. Main St., Westminster. Information: 410-857-8417.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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