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Carol Johnson on How Arkansas Is Enforcing Fair Housing Laws

March 26, 2019

Fair housing regulations are vital, but they require enforcement to ensure open and equitable access to housing for all people within our communities.

In Louisiana’s neighboring state to the north, that responsibility falls on the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission, the state agency that receives, investigates and resolves fair housing and fair lending complaints within Arkansas.

The commission, which was created in 2001 and is helped by Executive Director Carol Johnson, works in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to enforce state and federal laws dealing with fair housing and fair lending.

Johnson will head south to join other housing experts in April at the inaugural Connections conference, hosted by the Louisiana Housing Corporation, where she’ll share insights into how Arkansas handles always-evolving fair housing issues.

Ahead of her panel appearance, she visited with us to give a peek into some of what she’ll be discussing. Read highlights of the conversation below.

What’s the mission of the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission?

The mission of the Fair Housing Commission is to help facilitate open access to housing throughout the state. That can be open access to housing through lending opportunities, through rental opportunities, through the ability to purchase homes, through the appraisal process — all those things that are related to real estate transactions.

We were one of the last states to pass any fair housing legislation. Our law was not passed until 2001, and it was amended in 2003 to make it substantially equivalent to the federal legislation, which passed in 1968. We started at that point trying to develop a strategy to ensure there was equity in housing throughout our state. The commission was born with that mission in mind, and I helped facilitate that process and helped create the commission.

The AFHC is actually an enforcement agency, not just a policy-making or advocacy group. How does that work?

We are an enforcement agency. We’re quasi-judicial in that we are able to hold hearings. We investigate the complaints from start to finish. When a case comes in, it’s assigned and we go through the process of trying to determine if there is reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred. Once we find that we go through that adjudicated process — either through an administrative review, or a judicial review where we actually take it to court.

What are the most common housing issues that your commission encounters?

Probably the largest number of complaints are disability-related. It used to be that race-based complaints constituted the most significant number of complaints, but it seems now we have a lot of cases that focus on emotional support animals. People really have an issue with this idea of someone who has had a mental disability needing an emotional support animal, which is a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability. The other type of disability-related cases that we get deal with design and construction issues — whether or not the housing is structurally accessible to someone who has a physical disability.

Do you still encounter cases involving race, ethnicity or national origin?

Absolutely. One of our national origin cases dealt with international students that were attending a university. There was a housing provider that had an apartment complex near the school, and he had marketed the housing to college students. He charged the international students double deposits. We actually found out about the issue during a statewide university tour when we went to college campuses and talked to students about housing and how to protect their rights. We started looking into that — and this student actually filed a complaint — and we realized how pervasive it was. The resolution in this particular case was that we went back two years to all of those international students who had been charged double deposits and (the housing provider) had to refund that.

What can public officials, municipalities or other housing stakeholders do to promote fair and open access to housing in their communities?

No. 1: You have to understand what fair housing is, understand what constitutes a fair housing violation and what constitutes a fair lending violation, and then do your part to eradicate barriers to fair housing. The education is the key — understanding what a fair housing violation looks like, then having some kind of enforcement mechanism to ensure the protection of those rights.

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