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New state law may result in local assistance for fair housing complaints

If a renter believes he or she have been discriminated against, one option is to reach the Housing Access Center (HAC) in Duluth for information, guidance and possible mediation with the landlord.

If a renter believes he or she have been discriminated against, one option is to reach the Housing Access Center (HAC) in Duluth for information, guidance and possible mediation with the landlord.
To take the complaint a step further, a tenant must fill out a form and mail the claim to the Human Rights Commission in St. Paul or to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But who knows how long it will take for the complaint to be processed and the problem to be solved.
The process may change, though. Legislation recently was passed that could allow the Duluth Human Rights Commission to provide enforcement and remedies for persons claiming fair housing discrimination according to the Fair Housing Act. This means tenants could lodge their complaints and receive assistance locally.
The commission must become certified by HUD first, and legislative approval was needed to make that happen.
The bill is awaiting Gov. Jesse Ventura's signature to become law.
A House Research bill summary states that once HUD certifies a local agency, it will refer all housing complaints for that jurisdiction to the local agency and provide some funding.
However, it's now up to the City Council to pass an ordinance authorizing the commission to enforce human rights.
In addition, HAC plans to expand its services and hopes to work in close partnership with the commission, said Susan Utech, executive director of HAC. There is no formal arrangement yet, but Utech said she plans to forge that arrangement. She said the ordinance and the partnership are needed to offer both tenants and landlords better and timely assistance.
"When you have something in your own backyard, and somebody's not doing enough to solve the problem, there's going to be a lot more local heat than from Washington or Minneapolis to get somebody to solve the problem," Utech said.
HAC was formerly known as the Duluth Tenant's Union, which was taken over a few years ago by the Damiano Center. Its mission is to assist landlords and tenants through education and advocacy services, especially to low-income renters.
Utech said community funders want HAC to stand on its own as an organization so it can better meet its goals.
Although HAC will remain in the Damiano Center building, Utech said it broke away from the Damiano Center April 7. (HAC and its two other employees, Carolyn Franklin and Ruth Fields, will move to the other side of the hall into a larger office space in May.)
"It's been an evolving process," Utech said of HAC's changes during the past few years. "But during the entire time the programming has continued. It's never stopped."
HAC has a hotline for tenants and landlords to answer questions about the law or give them other information. It offers services such as mediating disputes between landlords and tenants to prevent going to court. HAC also networks with landlords and other community groups to see that people get the proper resources.
Another HAC service is the Housing Connection, which finds housing for homeless people or people who are in danger of becoming homeless, Utech said.
On Tuesday, April 18, HAC will hold its first community forum on the issue of fair housing from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the YWCA. Attorney Amber Hawkins with the Housing Discrimination Law Project will speak.
The forum's purpose is to educate landlords, tenants and the community on what fair housing is and how it applies to them.
Utech said other forums will be held, and she hopes city officials will attend so they can make a better decision about the ordinance.
"If the ordinance is passed, hopefully the whole community will have a local enforcement mechanism that's going to work," Utech said.
For more information, call HAC at 722-6808.

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