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Communities set to shine a light on housing fairness

An ambitious new report on fairness in the housing situation in a group of suburbs south of Boston is expected to include wide-ranging recommendations that could affect the course of development in the region for decades.

Analysts preparing the report, a draft of which is set to be published this week, said it will take an unflinching look at housing discrimination complaints lodged against municipalities and landlords, along with systemic issues like racially concentrated areas of poverty. It is expected to recommend significant changes to municipal zoning laws and a concerted outreach campaign to educate landlords and home sellers about state and federal fair-housing laws, which outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, disability, source of income, sexual orientation, and other so-called “protected classes.”

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“It’s against the law to discriminate against people based on any protected classes,” said Jennifer Erickson, a regional planner at the state’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which is preparing the report. “This is about creating welcoming and inclusive communities. People have a right to live where they want to live.”

The report, funded by a federal grant, is a collaboration between the planning agency and the Quincy-led South Shore HOME Consortium, a bloc of municipalities that banded together to qualify for federal housing funding and which also includes Braintree, Holbrook, Milton, and Weymouth.

The issue of discrimination by private landlords loomed large at a series of public forums the planning council held to solicit public input on the report.

At one meeting in Quincy last month, nearly 50 members of the city’s Chinese immigrant community packed the room to complain about widespread mistreatment as tenants, advocates said.

“It really became clear that many people who are property owners just don’t understand the law,” said Erickson, who attended the forum. “The landlords didn’t know it was not appropriate to ask prospective tenants about certain things, like whether they had children.”

‘Landlords didn’t know it was not appropriate to ask prospective tenants about certain things, like whether they had children.’

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One woman complained about a landlord who had told her an apartment was available, only to change his tune after learning she had young children. The landlord then insinuated that many other prospective tenants were interested in the unit and that she was unlikely to be chosen, Erickson said.

“Right now, the gap is that there’s no mechanism to get to property owners, particularly small property owners, and educate them on the law,” Erickson said.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, or MCAD, is the enforcing agency for fair-housing complaints based on classes protected by state law, while the federal Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity pursues cases that involve federally protected classes.

Both agencies can take landlords accused of discrimination to court, but the process can be intimidating and arduous for some tenants, especially those who are poor or disabled. Erickson said educating landlords and tenants about their responsibilities and rights is a more proactive approach.

Since 2009, 48 cases have been filed with the federal fair-housing agency against parties in the consortium, while 194 complaints were filed with the MCAD, Erickson said. The most common complaint was discrimination against the disabled, followed by discrimination by race and color. Other prospective tenants and buyers complained that landlords and sellers discriminated against them after learning they received public assistance; the state forbids discrimination on the basis of a person’s source of income.

The problem of creating fair housing has been difficult to tackle, advocates said, in part because federal belt-tightening in recent years has meant less housing funding for municipalities, which can use such money to help entice qualifying first-time home buyers to settle in their community, for example.

Another problem is the lack of data: Most municipalities lack a formalized system for responding to fair-housing complaints and tabulating how many they receive.

“If we’re not aware, how can we address them?” said Melissa M. Santucci Rozzi, Braintree’s principal planner, who estimated the town had received fewer than 10 complaints since 2009. “Is there a pattern to the complaints? Are there certain protected classes that keep being discriminated against? Once we tap into the data better, we can try to address those issues from a policy and education standpoint.”

Municipalities in the consortium may now begin keeping such records, pending approval by their respective governments.

Rozzi said Braintree and other communities in the consortium would also begin looking at implementing more inclusionary “smart growth” zoning and planning bylaws, with an eye toward requiring more units that are affordable and dispersing such units more evenly. And the group may launch a fair-housing awareness campaign targeted at landlords and realtors.

Implementing some of the reforms recommended by the forthcoming report could be politically fraught. Real estate professionals have expressed concern at planning council forums about overregulation, while housing advocates cautioned that municipalities are often reluctant to acknowledge that their communities are unwelcoming to certain groups.

In its presentation at the forums, planning council advocates displayed a map showing Braintree and Weymouth as towns with a large “fair share gap,” or a smaller-than-expected number of lower-income households. Although affordable housing is a separate issue from fair housing, the group says, a large gap between the expected and actual number of lower-income households can be a sign that a town is not doing enough to accommodate protected classes.

Rozzi insisted her office is ready to accept the report’s findings, even if they show Braintree must do more to foster fairness.

“We are seeking out the answers. If there are areas where we need to improve, then that’s the priority,” she said, praising Mayor Joseph Sullivan of Braintree for backing the objective analysis. “There are a lot of communities in Massachusetts that aren’t in consortiums because of the regulations and guidelines that come with federal money, but we won’t let that wear us down.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com.
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