Greensboro talks about fair international housing

by Allison Stalberg

On February 17 in the Peace United Church of Christ, a meeting on fair international housing took place. The third in a series of housing sessions, this one seated one hundred people.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing due to race, national origin, religion, gender, disability, and familial status. This meeting was to discuss ways to recognize discrimination, act upon issues for immigrant and refugee tenants and make more secure connections between landlords and the international community.

Many organizations came together such as the Greensboro Human Relations Department, BEF Realty, Phillips Management, Jalloh’s Upright Services, Church World Service, and Winston Salem Human Relations.

“Often times, a property manager will have very standard requirements that most of the population easily navigates, such as providing a social security number for ID, but international community members may have an assigned tax ID number in place of a social,” said Jodie Stanley from Human Relations and Education Outreach.

“We are an arm of fair housing administration in this area, and we are sometimes called on to mediate in situations where property owners and tenants are having trouble communicating. Much of the time, neither party has done any wrong; it is simply a lack of understanding and communication that leads to the misunderstanding.”

Stories were shared, such as from Amina Tahirou, whose family suffered in horrible housing conditions. When her toilet leaked she called maintenance to fix the issue.

“When they came, they didn’t do anything to stop the stinky liquid from running into my two rooms,” said Tahirou. “In the hallway, I have to move all my stuff into the living room. I bought a lot of towels, maybe about one hundred towels because I always had to try to block away the smelly leaky water to go all over the apartment.”

When she asked the manager if she could transfer to another apartment, they refused. After two months of miserable living, they came back to ask for their deposits to face an awful surprise.

“They gave us a bill of about $4,000,” Tahirou said. “Three thousand dollars for the toilet and four thousand for the carpet. I know the carpet became black because of the leaking of the smelly water.”

With Tahirou’s story told, the one hundred visitors were asked how many had heard similar stories in the international community. Nearly everyone raised their hands. When asked if they had ever heard positive stories, half had their hands up.

Abby Feinstein from BEF Realty was pained by Tahirou’s story. “To me, fair housing means I will not rent a property to someone that’s not a place I would live myself. It’s unfortunate we don’t hear more of the positive stories about landlords in the community that do take care of their property.”

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that over 50 percent of renters are cost burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing expenses in Greensboro. Forty-eight percent of those that have lived in Greensboro from 2010 to 2014 were renters.

Language barriers and cultural differences were an issue often brought up.

For Franca Jalloh from Jalloh’s Upright Service, her clients often complain that dealing directly with their property manager is difficult. Brandon Mathis from Phillips Management also felt the issue to be prominent.

“Language barriers and cultural differences present serious communication challenges,” he said. “Those challenges don’t typically arise early in the process. A lot of times what our property managers have found is that a person may have someone early on helping them interpreting the process but then when it happens several months later, that language or cultural difference can become a concern.

“We’ve had trouble in some situations where a resident is reluctant to communicate with the manager because of cultural difference, which can be a challenge especially in emergency situations.”

Kim LeBlanc from the Church World Service said one challenge is in just finding landlords willing to take an international family.

“Sometimes there are cultural misconceptions about people who are coming from other countries,” she said. “People who are uneducated about other individuals sometimes make up their minds about people. They don’t necessarily say what they think but they make up their minds about people they don’t really know anything about.

“As a case manager and all the case managers who work with refugees, we teach our clients how to communicate with their landlord, how to pay their bills, how to use the mailbox, how to dispose of trash, and how to turn the heat on,” LeBlanc said. “We take the time so that they know how to live here in the United States. It’s hard to explain that to landlords because they want what they want.”

As for solutions, the panelists had a lot of hope.

“I think what we’re doing today is special,” said Feinstein. “I think a good thing would be to have more public outreach like this.”

Mathis from Phillips Management said that they are working on a picture book to aid those with language barriers in communicating. He also loved the idea of jointly making a curriculum to educate landlords and tenants on their legal rights.

The meeting was closed by the director of the Greensboro Human Relations Department, Dr. Love Crossling. “For me, it’s really important to make sure we have diverse communities that we live in,” she said. “I don’t want everyone on my block to speak only one language and come from one place and have only one experience.

“I want there to be variety where I live and the only way we can make sure of that as a community is if we pool our resources together, put our time and energy to appeal to legislative bodies to make sure that immigrant and refugee populations feel safe in our community.” !

Have your housing rights been denied to you? The Human Relations Department can help. Contact their office at: (336) 373-2088