The city of Charlottesville plans to hire one of the only housing investigators in the state to look into allegations of housing discrimination on behalf of its Office of Human Rights.
It’s a new position for the office, and it’s also an unusual one for a Virginia city. Charlottesville is one of just a handful of Virginia localities to have an office of human rights or a human rights commission, never mind a housing discrimination investigator.
But the position is “critically important,” said Laura Dobbs, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “A lot of people don’t understand what discrimination looks like these days. It still happens, but it’s not often that you have that instance of outright intentional discrimination. It shows up in non-obvious ways.”
Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights, a city department, takes complaints of discrimination and provides staff support for the city’s Human Rights Commission. The commission is appointed by City Council, and its members advise the Council on human and civil rights matters.
The city’s human rights ordinance, which is in line with the federal one, protects people from being discriminated against while engaging in employment, housing, private education, public accommodation, and credit activities.
People cannot be discriminated against because of age, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, color, status as a veteran, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, and others. In housing specifically, people also cannot be discriminated against because of family status or the source of funds they use to pay rent. (For example, if they receive federal assistance.)
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It’s difficult for the Office of Human Rights staff to field and research all of the inquiries it receives, said its director, Todd Niemeier. The office had just two full-time employees until recently, aided by two part-time interns. And while the investigator will likely look into all types of complaints, not just housing, housing will be the majority of the caseload.
In 2021, the office fielded 1,962 calls, more than ever before, according to the Office of Human Rights and the Human Rights Commission’s joint 2021 annual report (the 2022 report has not yet been released). Most of those were from people asking for help the office does not provide. But 62 were from people in the city wondering whether, or alleging that, they’d been discriminated against. Most of them were about housing.
In fact, looking into allegations of housing discrimination has made up the majority of the office’s work. Between 2018 and 2021, the office has dealt with nearly 250 of them. (Employment was next, with 90.)
Race and disability were the most commonly-reported reasons for housing discrimination, according to the report.
Not all complaints or inquiries turn up evidence of discrimination. But not all instances of discrimination are reported, because not everyone knows what it looks like, said Dobbs, the Virginia Poverty Law Center attorney.
This is where a discrimination investigator can help, she said.
The process of handling contacts, inquiries, and complaints is a long, complicated, often arduous one, said Niemeier.
First, there’s an intake process, which can lead to either mediation if both parties consent to it, or an investigation. The investigator has to gather evidence, chase down paperwork and photos, find any witnesses and interview them under oath, write up affidavits. (It’s not a “secret shopper” type of investigation, that’s called “housing testing” and is something else entirely.)
Once the evidence is gathered and analyzed, the office must determine whether or not there’s a reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred. If that happens, then the city attorney’s office could file a lawsuit on behalf of the individual.
For a few years, Niemeier has done both the intake and investigation parts simultaneously. The problem with that is investigation cases languish, said Niemeier. “You cannot get it all done.”
Currently, the city contracts with a mediator, and Assistant City Manager Ashley Marshall has been rendering the determinations.
Niemeier just hired an intake person for the OHR, and when he hires a housing discrimination investigator, he’ll be able to take over the determination piece.
“There’s enough volume to justify” having staff for each of the four roles, he said. Plus, the office is seeing more and more things come in that present investigable discrimination cases, said Niemeier.
Dobbs calls Charlottesville’s budgeting for the housing discrimination investigator position “a really great commitment.”
“Despite the promise of trying to create a world in which people can live where they choose, free from discrimination, we still have a long way to go to recover from racial segregation and to make it so that our housing is fair,” she said.
Niemeier is of a similar opinion.
“We have not 100% figured out how not to discriminate. Ideally, you don’t want this [type of office] at all in the long run,” he said. “But what we’re trying to do in the meantime, until we figure out how to be perfect humans, we want to make sure that people have protection.”