March 18, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
The landlord on the other end of the line seemed nice enough when Jackie Grant called him about the apartment.
He reacted differently in person when she told him that the government paid her rent.
"When I met him, his attitude changed when he found out I was Section 8," said Grant, referring to the federally funded housing assistance voucher. "I called him a week later and he said, 'I'm sorry, I can't rent to you. I talked to my partner and we don't want to get involved in Section 8.' "
In spring of 2005, Grant -- a state judicial marshal until cancer forced her to leave her job, go on disability and get rental assistance -- asked the Connecticut Fair Housing Center for help. That fall, after the center filed a complaint with the state, Grant got a settlement and the landlord agreed to change his ways.
Now, it's not Grant but the fair housing center itself that's up against a wall. Faced with the loss of federal funding, the center will close soon unless the state legislature approves $350,000 for it. State budget writers say they like the program but have made no assurances.
The nonprofit organization investigates housing discrimination complaints and provides free legal assistance. For much of the last decade it has received 60 percent of its annual budget through a program run by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
With its small staff - now at three attorneys, two fair housing specialists, and one administrator - the center has investigated more than 2,500 housing discrimination complaints since 1994. Calls in 2006 were up 35 percent, and the majority of its complaints come from people on rental assistance like Grant.
But last September, the center found out that it did not make the federal cut for 2007. Center officials say the federal government has redirected much of its funding to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina; federal officials say the center's bid wasn't competitive enough.
Either way, the center faces uncertainty. It has enough money to get through 2007 with a reduced staff beginning this summer. If nothing changes, it will probably close in 2008.
"The immediate effect is that the 300 calls we get every year will go unanswered," Executive Director Erin Kemple said.
Federal officials say that the $13.9 million fair housing enforcement grants were awarded through a competitive process in which applicants documented discrimination and demonstrated need.
In the grant cycle awarded last fall, New England states got two grants that totaled roughly $550,000 - about half of what they were awarded in the two previous years. The average for the four prior years was slightly more than four grants and $976,000.
But Gulf states fared considerably better in this cycle, getting 12 grants for roughly $3.14 million in 2006. The average for the four prior years was nine grants and $1.978 million.
"They didn't present a strong enough application to get funded," said Bryan Greene, a deputy assistant secretary at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Some Gulf Coast groups may have fared better than Connecticut and, if so, it's because they presented us with very strong applications."
State Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven and chairwoman of the appropriations committee, said she favors the center's funding, but, as always, it comes down to available dollars. "I do believe it's an important program and service and that we need to have it in the state of Connecticut," she said. "I'm sorry that, yet again, the federal government is reducing its commitment to programs in our state."
Grant says she would be homeless without Section 8.
"I worked all my life and then got sick with cancer and had to get on assistance, and this is what I'm up against," she said. "Where else would the poor go? Or those who are middle class who can't find a house because they're being discriminated against? That's what that organization is for."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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