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The Somerville Fair Housing Commission compiled a Fair Housing questionnaire for mayoral and City Council candidates to respond to. The Somerville Wire will be publishing the completed questionnaire in a six part series. The third is included below.

(Somerville Wire) – What is the most important thing that Somerville landlords, property managers, real  estate agents, or owners selling their homes need to know to further Fair Housing in  Somerville? What would you do to increase compliance with Fair Housing law?

Katjana Ballantyne, Candidate for Mayor

Landlords should be encouraged to consult with the City’s Office of Housing Sustainability at all  times, but particularly when they are considering selling their property. Landlords and property  owners must be made aware that their tenants have protections and that having tenants can be an  asset. Landlords and owner who are selling should instruct their real estate agents not to give  orders to vacate their apartments in order the make an easier sale. A great deal more public  education must be provided on this issue.

I’ll use education, promotions mailings and all methods of social media to inform landlords,  owners, managers and agents about Fair Housing rights and responsibilities. I’ll make sure that  the initiatives of the Fair Housing Commission are appropriately funded.

Mary Cassesso, Candidate for Mayor

The most important thing for folks to know is that they should take advantage of the housing  resources that are already available, for example, the educational materials and training that the  Fair Housing Commission provides. The Office of Housing Stability is a great resource for  Somerville, and the City budget should continue to fund and consider increasing funding for Fair  Housing enforcement. Because unit repair requirements, including de-leading, can be an obstacle  to leasing to families or to households with Section 8 vouchers, the City should do more to  support property owners making improvements to get their units ready for these households.

Will Mbah, Candidate for Mayor

To increase compliance with Fair Housing law I will introduce a rental licensure program and  make the rental process more transparent. Prospective tenants should be able to easily view  complaints, lawsuits, and the history against a landlord or property manager they are considering  renting from. This will incentivize property managers and landlords to follow the law when  renting and treat prospective tenants and current tenants with respect.

In addition, I will fully fund and staff the Somerville Fair Housing Commission so that it has the  resources it needs to minimize and ultimately eliminate discrimination in housing. I believe that  in some instances of housing discrimination, landlords and property managers are not  intentionally being discriminatory, but have not been property educated about fair housing  policies and what is legal and what is not. We can eliminate these unintentional instances of  discrimination through improved education and outreach.

Charlotte Kelly, Candidate for City Council At Large:

I believe it’s important to root our analysis of Fair Housing by asking, “Who is most vulnerable  and who has power?” While landlords, property managers, real estate agents, and sellers may  need to better understand the Fair Housing law in order to comply, it is also critical that tenants  and buyers understand their own rights. Organizations like Community Action Agency of  Somerville, Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville, and Asian American Resource Workshop, as  well as the Office of Housing Stability have done incredible work to make sure tenants have  access to information regarding their rights. We can still do much more to ensure that tenants  understand their rights and protections and are able to advocate for themselves when necessary.  As well as expand services like the Office of Housing Stability to help advocate with tenants in  order to have their rights protected. If elected, I would work with the Council and the  Inspectional Service Division to audit the enforcement process of health code within residential  properties, in order to ensure residents are living in safe and healthy homes. I would work with  the Office of House Stability to create lease templates so landlords can provide leases to their  tenants that are fair and in compliance with the law. Lastly, we have to find ways to publicly  track landlords, property managers, real estate agents, and sellers who discriminate, violate  tenants rights, or are otherwise known to be acting in ways that are harmful and unlawful. We  have to work with tenants rights groups, social justice organizations, and housing justice groups  to determine what kind of material consequences entities should face who violate Fair House  laws.

Justin Klekota, Candidate for City Council At Large:

State and Federal Fair Housing Law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national  origin, religion, sex, gender identity, military status, age (except minors), sexual orientation,  family status (e.g. have children), source of income (e.g. Section 8), disability, marital status,  genetic information, and ancestry. As a City Councilor, I am committed to working with the  Somerville Fair Housing Commission and funding its educational outreach efforts to landlords,  property managers, real estate agents, and owners as well as to residents to know their rights.

Kristen Strezo, Councilor At Large:

The most important thing that Somerville landlords, property managers, real estate agents, and  owners selling their homes need to know to further Fair Housing in Somerville is that housing  instability is incredibly common. The names and faces experiencing housing insecurity are their  community members, their neighbors and their children’s classmates.

We need to humanize the housing instability crisis because it affects the entirety of our  community. And ignoring the human right of Fair Housing distances us from the fact that  Somerville, and the Commonwealth, is in the middle of an underfunded moral crisis.

To increase compliance, we need more public awareness campaigns in Somerville, and I will  support this to make it happen. Additionally, I will continue advocating to increase the allocation  of municipal funds and expand the number of staff for the Office of Housing Stability to ensure that residents have access to the necessary resources. During the pandemic, for months I spoke  with some of the largest landlords in Somerville asking them to work with their tenants who have  fallen behind on rent and to not evict them.

This fight extends beyond Somerville. I am working alongside many housing advocates across  the Commonwealth to enact support for the statewide Transfer Fee. We need more supportive  House and Senate Bills that fund affordable housing, more compliance, and more education  campaigns.

Tracey Pratt, Candidate for City Council At Large

The most important thing the above mentioned groups need to know are federal and state laws.  They need to understand that their potential actions could be unlawful and carry consequences.  We need to hold people in these positions accountable for their actions.

As city councilor I would support or propose resolutions for the following. I would also advocate  for budget increases in these areas:

  1. Both tenants and landlords need to be well versed in the law. I’d support more training  such as fair housing 101. This training or some form of it should be mandatory for  landlords. It can be done virtually or even by watching a video that they’d have to sign  off that they saw said training and understand pertinent components of the law.
  2. Landlords should have to submit an annual fair housing compliance checklist for all  properties.
  3. All complaints should be investigated and resolved.

Virginia Hussey, Candidate for City Council At Large:

Landlords and property managers need to understand that vouchers don’t; make people bad  tenants, and that their misperceptions can have serious effects on families who are struggling to  stay in their community.

Willie Burnley, Jr., Candidate for City Council At Large

I think that all landlords, property managers, real estate agents, and owners must know that they  are required to follow the law regarding Fair Housing, up to code for the safety and health of  their tenants, and that they will face consequences from the City of Somerville as well as all  appropriate agencies and governments if they do not do so. There are a number of initiatives I’d  be interested in exploring in order to help facilitate that.

Under current law, landlords are responsible for giving tenants documents regarding their rights  and resources when they send them an eviction notice. Although this is an improvement, I  believe that all landlords should be mandated to supply their tenants with a tenants rights  document and fair housing resources upon a lease’s signage. These documents should include  information about how to report housing discrimination to the Fair Housing Commission  because, according to the aforementioned Somerville study, many – perhaps a majority – of  residents do not know how to report housing discrimination. Our city should work to increase knowledge among the general public around fair housing, including ensuring that the Office of  Housing Stability can have the funds to host educational community events and facilitate  reporting.

I am also intrigued by the possibility of the City creating template leases that outline for residents  what is legal and illegal for your landlord to require of their tenants. This would allow residents  to take note of which landlords are potentially creating unfair conditions for their tenants and  then report these inconsistencies to the City. As a Councilor, I will engage the Director of the  Office of Housing Stability on the feasibility of this, in addition to the feasibility of partnering  with organizations that do fair housing checks so that we can ensure that our residents have a  housing market as free from structural and interpersonal oppression as possible.

JT Scott, City Councilor, Ward 2:

In addition to familiarity and compliance with state and federal Fair Housing law as stated above,  property owners must be aware of the Somerville Condo Conversion Ordinance which contains  strong protections for renters facing displacement due to condo conversion. At the very least, a  rental property registration database would provide the city a means for outreach to incoming  and existing tenants to inform them of their rights. The Office of Housing Stability is doing  excellent work with community partners through Know Your Rights campaigns around tenant  protections, but we lack a central point of contact for people engaged in housing searches who  are faced with illegal fees, unfair practices, and outright discrimination.

Ben Ewen-Campen, City Councilor, Ward 3:

For years, I have advocated for Somerville to establish a very visible and continual Fair Housing  testing and enforcement program, instead of the largely complaint-based system we rely on now  (  erms=illegal%20housing%20discrimination). Just as the government regularly sends underage  “testers” to buy alcohol or cigarettes, I believe landlords and real estate agents would be far less  likely to casually discriminate if they knew that Fair Housing testers who regularly out in our  community.

Two other policies I will be working on in the upcoming term: I am leading the Council’s efforts  to examine how we can encode Fair Housing principles in our Zoning ordinance. In particular, I  believe we can create tools to encourage developers to use principles of Fair Housing in the  marketing of new units, to actively recruit tenants and buyers from many different backgrounds.  I am also working with community partners to create a revitalized first-time homebuyers  mortgage assistance program, similar to the One+ program in Boston, using funds from large  developers.

Beatriz Gómez Mouakad, City Council candidate, Ward 5:

Knowledge of the Fair Housing Law is important, but reinforcing the importance of the law  to preserve and ensure a diverse community that is equally accessible to all (which is at the heart of the law) needs to be emphasized. To increase compliance I would advocate for  increase access to fair housing law information as per below:

  • Clear information available to all landlords, property managers, real estate agents and  owners plus homeowners, renters and buyers should be mandated during all transactions  and when feasible it should be posted in a public location visible to all similar to HIPPA  rights in a doctor’s office. For example fair housing law is posted in a public lobby of a  multi-family home or in a rental/real estate agency.
  • At lease or mortgage signing a review of fair housing law with all parties involved  including but not limited to landlord, tenant/seller and homeowner etc.
  • Annually send all landlords, property owners and homeowners and tenants a summary of fair  housing law rights.
  • Provide homeowners, property owners, landlords etc with instructions and guidelines for  where and how to publish notifications for home sales and rentals to ensure equal accessibility  to information. Lack of information or where information is posted can lead to exclusion or  limit access to some populations.
  • Include a hotline for reporting cases of violation of fair housing law with the potential of access  to legal services.
  • Include information forums or even videos on-line explaining fair housing law.
  • All information or services above need to be provided in multiple languages and include  translators. This should be a mandate in the City for all Fair Housing Law information should  it not be already enforced.

Tessa Bridge, City Council candidate, Ward 5:

Education and awareness building is incredibly important for both landlords and tenants to  ensure that Fair Housing laws are enforced, that tenants know their rights, and that landlords are  held accountable. One strategy to make sure that landlords understand the requirements is to  adopt a tenants bill of rights in Somerville which clearly outlines what tenants should expect of  their landlords and what landlords must do to be in compliance. To give teeth to this strategy we  also need to increase enforcement through ISD. ISD can do regular unannounced visits to  properties to ensure that they are up to standard and follow up promptly when allegations of  discrimination are brought by tenants. Furthermore, the city can create lease templates that they  require all landlords to use which outline both the tenants and landlords’ responsibilities so that  both parties are aware and accountable. Finally, by increasing investment in the Office of  Sustainable Housing so that there are layers available to any tenants who need them when facing  housing discrimination disputes, the court system can also serve to hold landlords accountable to  their tenants.

Todd Easton, City Council candidate, Ward 5:

The city needs to do a better job at educating stakeholders about housing law, as well as  increasing enforcement and inspectional services. Landlords and building owners in Somerville need to know that discrimination in housing in Somerville will not be tolerated and that this is a  city priority which will be enforced.

Alexander Anderson, City Council candidate, Ward 7:

Landlords, property managers, real estate agents, and owners selling their homes should be  informed of the rules and regulations related to fair housing in Somerville. And, they should also  be engaged with representatives of the city so they can understand the spirit of fair housing  approaches and the goals of fair housing in our community. I think this knowledge sharing and  engagement should be conducted in an on-going way and returned to on a regular basis to make  sure the shared information and culture around fair housing in Somerville is consist for  everything working to rent or buy property in Somerville.

Landlords, property managers, real estate agents, and owners should also be aware of the  consequences of violating fair housing practices and be held accountable for transgressions in a  way that is transparent.

Becca Miller, City Council candidate, Ward 7:

We should be asking what tenants need, and how to enforce their rights, including Protection  from Evictions + Right to Counsel. We should already expect that landlords, property managers,  and real estate agents know the laws around fair housing. We should require that all landlords,  real estate agents, property managers, and homeowners selling their property give prospective  tenants or buyers information on the already existing laws. The city should also engage in  random inspections to ensure that the law is being followed, alongside increased penalties for  non-compliance that cannot be passed on to tenants. We should also pass a fair housing ordinance, similar to Boston’s, that includes increased inspections and requirements to comply  with the law. Finally, the fair housing commission could create a template lease that could be  posted online as a resource to serve as an example of what is legal and not legal to include in a  lease.

Judy Pineda Neufeld, City Council candidate, Ward 7:

The best way to ensure that Fair Housing laws are followed is to make sure that both tenants and  landlords clearly understand their rights and responsibilities. This must be done in a way that  accounts for language and cultural barriers and reaches those without access to the internet or a  computer. I have already begun this work as the lead for the Immigrant Services Unit (ISU)  under the City of Somerville’s Covid response. There I helped ensure that immigrant  communities and marginalized folks had information on city and partner services in five  languages. Members of the ISU participated in the Know Your Rights coalition led by the  Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS) and the ISU tabled at grocery stores and city  squares with information on tenant rights and the eviction moratorium. I believe in meeting  people where they are and utilizing a comprehensive communications campaign in our main  languages in Somerville to spread the word. Flyers, social media, town halls, word of mouth, and  just plain community organizing are all keys to success in getting the information out about  tenant and landlord rights and responsibilities. I look forward to the opportunity to work with the Fair Housing Commission on this issue and will ensure the commission is adequately staffed and  supported by the City to carry out this duty.

Maria Koutsoubaris, City Council candidate, Ward 7:

They are being treated unfairly with attention to the current ordinance. It hasn’t been designed to  assist in fair housing but to put a strangle hold on homeowners which results in a domino effect.  Eventually trickling down to the tenant that has to pay in order for the owner to keep in good  standing with mortgages and property maintenance. A reverse of the ordinance would release the  property owners to sell or buy in a more comfortable manner which again results in no extra fees  back to the city and the domino effect of a lower rental for the tenants.

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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