Having recently settled sexual harassment lawsuits against landlords and other housing authorities in three states, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “real goal is not to get the most compensation for victims but to eliminate this kind of harassment altogether,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson told attendees at the General Session during the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C., on May 16. HUD, which brought the charges in California, Florida, and Virginia, settled for $125,000 for the victims in the cases.
“No one should ever have to make the choice between a roof over their head and tolerating harassment,” Carson said. “It’s very important for us to educate people about what sexual harassment is and what their options are to prevent it.” HUD is doing just that in a joint task force with the Department of Justice whose aim is to investigate sexual harassment claims and develop recommendations for stronger enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.
Carson also addressed other top priorities for HUD, including:
- Support animals. While HUD is making sure landlords understand their rights as well as responsibilities to tenants who require support animals, Carson said the department is mindful that other tenants have rights, too. “I think we can all appreciate, for example, Seeing Eye dogs and how they help people,” he said. But too many prospective renters are making unsupported claims to need exotic animals, which potentially puts other tenants at risk, Carson added. “If your support animal is an alligator, the person living next to you may not be comfortable with that, and that should be acknowledged.” HUD is developing guidelines to further ensure that landlords can obtain written approval from a legitimate health care provider that a tenant has a true disability and is in need of a support animal.
- Access to credit. Carson acknowledged complaints that credit-scoring guidelines may have a disparate negative impact on minorities and vowed that “we’re going to continue calculating credit scores in a responsible and compassionate way.” He said that before the last housing crisis, when subprime loans were rampant, “our attitude was that everybody should have a home. Clearly, we would like people to be homeowners, but we have to do it the right way.”
- Condo rules. HUD has been working on financing rules for condos over the last year and is “coming down the home stretch,” Carson said. Currently, condo buyers using FHA financing cannot qualify for a unit in a building that is not entirely FHA-approved. The problem, Carson said, is that while many people have good ideas about what the condo rules should be and how to enforce them, the proposals include too many regulations. “We’re working very hard to try to get rid of all the things that aren’t necessary,” he said.
Carson concluded by challenging attendees to use their sphere of influence to affect positive change not only for fair housing but for the country as a whole. “Right now, our nation needs courageous people and their sphere of influence to stand up for the bedrock principles of our country,” he said. Hinting at the political divisiveness in Washington and beyond, he admonished those who “sit around and demonize everybody” who doesn’t agree with them. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said, invoking a famous Abraham Lincoln speech. “We must strongly oppose the purveyors of hatred and division.”