Rock Hill forum to focus on fair housing

Rock Hill is one of six cities in the Charlotte region to participate this month in a fair housing forum designed to identify and work toward eliminating the barriers people face when renting homes and apartments or obtaining mortgages.

The forum is an opportunity, organizers say, for residents to learn more about their rights, for landlords and real estate companies to be informed of their legal obligations, and for civic leaders to gather information to better address housing issues.

It is part of an ongoing project called “Connect Our Future,” run by the Centralina Council of Governments and paid for mostly by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Rock Hill’s upcoming forum will also fulfill a federal grant process requirement that the city must follow every five years.

A key part of the city’s goal in hosting the forum will be to teach residents about their protected rights under the federal Fair Housing Act, said Jason Weil, Rock Hill’s director of housing and neighborhood services. The act prohibits lending agencies, landlords and real estate companies from discriminating against people on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status or disability.

Federal grant requirements mandate that Rock Hill produce a report every five years identifying barriers to housing in the city. But issues such as housing discrimination and affordability are constantly monitored by city employees, Weil said.

Rock Hill has a hotline for residents who have questions about their housing rights or want to report that they have been discriminated against when looking to rent, buy or secure a loan for housing. Residents can also call the state’s fair housing division or HUD directly.

It’s possible that residents are using resources other than the city’s, Weil said, but generally Rock Hill receives a “couple calls per month where people had specific questions about their fair housing rights or potential complaints.”

Other people call in, he said, with problems that are not addressed through the Fair Housing Act, such as a landlord who is inattentive to maintenance needs. Overall, he said, Rock Hill seems to be in good shape with community members following federal housing guidelines. Still, compliance with laws that prohibit discriminatory lending, renting and selling practices is a separate issue from housing affordability and access.

The Rock Hill Housing Authority provides public housing for low- to moderate-income families and individuals.

There are at least 100 families on a waiting list for public housing in Rock Hill. Another 100 people are on a waiting list for rental assistance vouchers provided through the housing authority.

HUD provides money for housing authorities offering public housing and rental assistance. Rock Hill’s housing authority has 339 units; owns and operates a 56-unit building specifically for senior citizens and people with disabilities; and uses rental vouchers to help qualifying people pay for rent at non-public housing places.

To initially qualify for public housing or rental assistance, a person or household must earn less than 80 percent of the median income in their locality.

In Rock Hill, for example, a person earning less than $36,500 or a family of four with a household income of less than $52,100 would be initially eligible to live in public housing. HUD’s housing assistance income level requirements for Rock Hill are based off of the entire Charlotte-metro area.

The housing authority’s presence in Rock Hill is “fairly sizable,” said its executive director, Richard Unz.

Unz’s office is one of many partners involved in the “Connect” project and the upcoming forum. When analyzing impediments to affordable housing, he said, it’s important to bring together experts from many areas of the community such as economic development officials, municipal planners and those who study public transportation.

Some barriers to affordable housing aren’t necessarily “discriminatory,” he said.

For instance, the lack of public transportation in a city could be deemed an “impediment” because it limits the housing options for a person without personal transportation, Unz said. Results from the forum, he said, will help Rock Hill leaders draft a plan that could deal with barriers to affordable housing and “Connect” participants.

Forging an effective plan to address affordability and housing barriers is important, Unz said, “because everybody is entitled to finding housing without facing any form of discrimination.”

By Anna Douglas, Staff Reporter with The Herald