Interview: Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity John Trasviña
The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity is dealing with an evolving set of discrimination challenges facing families, changes in the very definition of “family,” and the political realities of the 112th Congress. Trasviña is no stranger to this balancing act.
By Miriam Axel-Lute, Matthew Brian Hersh, and Harold Simon Posted on March 29, 2011
John Trasviña came to HUD in 2009 from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund where he served as president and general counsel. Through President Clinton’s second term he served as special counsel for immigration related unfair employment practices, making him the highest-ranking Latino in the Justice Department. He spoke with Shelterforce about updating the Fair Housing Act, reviving attention to Section 3, and the challenges in nailing down what it means to “affirmatively further fair housing.”
Shelterforce: Talk about how housing fits into the civil rights agenda.
Assistant Secretary Trasviña: I have devoted my career to civil rights advocacy, litigation, and policy-making areas such as voting rights, immigration, education, employment, and language. Housing, especially fair housing, is the common platform that has such a tremendous impact on all these issues. That is why, in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968, President Johnson called on civil rights, faith, urban, and other leaders and determined that the Fair Housing Act was essential to bring the nation forward and to bring the nation together. We carry on that legacy today.
Have we made progress?
We have, but our work is not over until every home and every community in the nation is free from discrimination, whether it is race, religion, national origin, or the other protected classes under our statute.
We receive more than 10,000 complaints of housing discrimination each year, many from people with disabilities. We continue to fight the blatant examples of discrimination. At the same time, we have to be positioned for the 21st century, and that means looking at different communities.
What do you mean by “different communities”?
One of the great things about the Fair Housing Act is that it is a mirror image of some of the greatest movements in our nation’s history. The women’s movement of the 1960s, for example, eventually led to the inclusion of gender discrimination in the Fair Housing Act in 1974. In 1988, the act recognized the history of discrimination in housing against families with children and people with disabilities.
So as we are now in the 21st century, beyond our focus on the existing statute, we are also looking at the conditions of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people, and looking at source-of-income discrimination. We have to be a civil rights office that is relevant to the 21st century. This means addressing the needs of newcomers and new families without forgetting the core issues of discrimination that formed the target of the ‘68 Act.
How good a job are we doing now?
That’s one of the most difficult things to really document. When I worked at the Department of Justice under Janet Reno, one of my areas was immigration, and every year a similar question was posed: “How effective is the federal government at enforcing the border?” Is it a good year when you have a lot of people who are stopped at the border, or is it a good year when you have few people stopped at the border?
In the area of discrimination, it’s the same thing. We see certain parts of the country where we have a lot of complaints coming to us, but is that because there is a strong fair housing environment where people feel comfortable coming forward and saying we’ve been discriminated against, or is there really a higher incidence of discrimination? Similarly, we have some states where there’s very little discrimination reported. Is that because there’s no discrimination, or is that because people don’t know how to report it or who to report it to?
Overall, the numbers are only a guide. Our sense is that there is more to be done. For example, mayors and governors have no role in our immigration policy. Under the Constitution, immigration policy and numbers are determined by the President and Congress. But immigrant integration is successful or not successful in our schools and in our communities. HUD can and should be a strong partner with local communities to advance opportunity and make immigrant integration a success.
We look at different ways to determine people’s access to services, people’s success in healthcare outcomes and education outcomes. All of those come back, very often, to discrimination and housing discrimination. So while we are moderately successful, we have tremendous challenges ahead of us, so we don’t really focus on how successful we are. We look at specific areas, specific communities, and what new issues are facing people in their daily lives so we can address them using the Fair Housing Act and our partnerships in the private sector, in the industry, and in the public sector.
What are some of those new challenges?
The evolving nature of families, for one. Recently the State Department announced that children’s passport applications would no longer say “mother” and “father.” They will say “parent number one” and “parent number two.” This parallels our work in combating housing discrimination against people because of their family status.
We recently settled a case in Philadelphia on behalf of a woman who was evicted for adopting a child. When she signed the lease she told the landlord that she wanted to adopt a baby. The landlord told her, “Well, we don’t rent to children.” They couldn’t deny her the apartment at that time because she was childless. She later adopted a young boy who after a number of months was able to get adjusted to a new family situation, new school, new community, and new friends. Then the woman and her child were evicted.
But because she wrote to us we were able to help her. In part through the settlement amount, she was able to buy a home in another community where she and her child are now bonding. So whether they are issues related to some of the more systemic areas of discrimination, or affirmatively furthering fair housing, we are putting a new mark on the long-held responsibility of the department.
Some of the other areas in which we are active include working with local communities and their responsibility to ensure that the dollars that they get from HUD are extended and invested, not only in the buildings and in the structures, but in the people themselves. So we’ve taken a new look at Section 3 of the HUD Act to make sure that job opportunities and contracting opportunities are going to low-income people and to those who hire them.
Section 3 was always way back in the line in terms of actually being used. That’s great.
Well, that’s correct, and it can’t be that way anymore. You look at the number one concern of people across America, and it’s job opportunities. And here not only do we have an obligation, but we have resources that go from HUD to local communities. When I came on board last year, only about 20 percent of the jurisdictions who received HUD money would even tell us what they did under Section 3. In the past year, we’ve been able to increase that reporting from 20 percent to almost 80 percent.
It is more than reporting to HUD. HUD is taking a look at the jurisdictions and we are working with them, not just scrutinizing them. It’s a matter of helping them and working with them. The percentage of new hires who are Section 3 residents has gone up to over 50 percent. The percentage of contracting opportunities for companies who hire low-income individuals has risen as well.
We have a long way to go in this, given the economic situation, but this is an area where we can—and must—put the federal government behind job training and matching people with job opportunities.