Housing monitor closes office

Baltimore group runs out of funds for satellite operation

May 22, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Despite a warm reception from real estate agents, the fair-housing advocacy group Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. has closed its Westminster office because funds ran out, officials said.

Two years ago, BNI opened satellite offices in Carroll and Harford counties to launch a pilot Fair Housing Initiatives Program, said Joseph J. Coffey, the organization's director.

"These were the only outposts we've ever had, although we do fair-housing work all over," he said. "There's been a lot of migration out of the city into these counties, and if there are bad housing patterns occurring, it would be farther out."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the group a nonrenewable $262,000 federal grant in December 1997, he said.

When the grant ran out last month, he said the small nonprofit group could not afford to keep the offices, which were less efficient than centralized service in Baltimore.

The organization is best known for sending out "testers," volunteers of different races who play the roles of renters or homebuyers to detect discrimination. News of testers in the area circulated in Westminster soon after the office opened.

Although the Carroll and Harford offices found some problems, Coffey said they were resolved informally and none resulted in charges. "We had a number of complaints; we did a lot of testing. There was some discrimination going on."

BNI tends to make headlines when its testers' findings lead to bias complaints -- and victories -- in the courts or with the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

Education is the group's other aim -- and on that score, the suburban foray succeeded in forging relationships with local officials, homebuilders, real estate agents and landlords, Coffey said.

Carroll's first Fair Housing Forum was held Saturday in Westminster, co-sponsored by the city, BNI and the Carroll County Association of Realtors.

Sharon Hiner, executive vice president of the Realtors' group, said more than 50 members signed up for the forum before the association announced the meeting in its newsletter.

Coffey said he was amazed when 150 people attended a similar fair-housing session with the Harford County Board of Realtors. It outlined "what the law is, and what a Realtor can and cannot do, in a way that's positive -- because we do testing," he said.

Coffey said he was also gratified by his group's reception in Carroll. "I expected a lot of skepticism toward BNI," he said, but 50 to 60 real estate agents came to the first training session on preventing discrimination in housing.

When BNI was founded in 1959, Baltimore was wrenched by blockbusting, racial steering and white flight to the suburbs, he said. James W. Rouse and William Boucher III, with current BNI board members Melvin J. Sykes and Sidney Hollander Jr., helped launch the nonprofit organization with local real estate agents. BNI will honor Sykes, who is credited with the idea, at its 41st anniversary meeting on Tuesday.

BNI's pool of potential clients has swelled, Coffey said.

"When we first came into being, race was the prominent issue. Today, it's not just race," he said. While the 1968 Fair Housing Act barred discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion and gender, amendments in 1988 added "the disability community and family status -- and we do a lot of work in these areas now," Coffey said.

"If we get 400 calls a year, maybe 200 are from people with a disability -- and that's been just the last four or five years," he said. "And we get a lot of family-status calls," particularly from single mothers.

In addition to the 400 complaints BNI handles each year, he said, its tenant-landlord telephone counseling program received more than 25,000 calls last year -- about 400 from Carroll.

When the offices were opened in Westminster and Havre de Grace, they were intended to serve neighboring counties, not just Carroll and Harford, he said.

Coffey said he thought the effort had created good will through its education work. "It turned out to be a good thing for us, because we got to know the players in the counties a little better. I think we learned a lot from this experience."

He expressed gratitude to the city of Westminster and Karen Blandford, its manager of housing and community development.

Blandford said she was sorry to see the Westminster office close. "I wish BNI would have given us the opportunity as a community to help them find funding to keep the Carroll County office open.

"Testing can be controversial, but I support it as being effective on two levels," she said. "It gives backup data if there are complaints about discrimination, so on that level it is very effective. On the other level, simply knowing that there is a group out there actively testing in Carroll County acts like a speed trap: It has people instinctively on their best behavior."

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