County Commission wrangles over approval of housing discrimination report

Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Sarasota County Commissioners yesterday, June 5, debated how fully they should embrace an outside analysis that found discrimination against minorities and those with disabilities in the local housing market.

The report was presented by Director of Housing and Community Development Don Hadsell, but its contents had already been reviewed by the commission at a joint city/county meeting in April. The “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice,” written by the consulting firm Mullin & Lonergan Associates, found that “a very high percentage of rental housing tests (almost 75%) conducted throughout the County in 2011 resulted in findings of discrimination on the basis of race or disability.” Mullin & Lonergan also found inequities in how loans were handled, reporting that “lower-income Black and Hispanic households were more likely to receive high-cost mortgage loans than lower-income White or Asian households.”

The report concludes with several recommendations for how local government agencies should crack down on the problem, and it was those recommendations that gave pause to the commission yesterday as it debated the “approval and execution” of the report.

Hadsell told the commission that he felt prior discussion of the report was “not a fair representation of the efforts of the city and the county” to combat discrimination and segregation. “The analysis as a whole was rather glowing,” he said, but, nevertheless, “the report provided a road map for ways that Sarasota could continue in improving their performance in the next five years.”

“We know what the accomplishments have been over the past several years,” Commissioner Joe Barbetta replied, saying the consultant who offered the oral report “kind of beat us up pretty good.”

“It wasn’t really fair to the county or the city,” he said.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton questioned why the report needed to be “approved” at all. “Is this a report that we should be ‘accepting,’ or is it a report that we should be ‘approving’?” he asked, curious whether approval would commit the commission to future funding. Thaxton also asked if the commission might “be held obligated to certain financial necessities that would be required to implement all of the policies in the report.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires approval of the analysis to make the county eligible for Community Development Block Grant money. According to Hadsell, approving the Mullin & Lonergan report would simply give his department a “work plan” to meet future goals.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh said approving the report “is not a statement to HUD that you will do everything in the plan.”

“Staff is going to start looking at, over the next five years, bringing the recommendations that are in this plan to you for further refinement, consideration,” Hadsell said. “I don’t think you’re signing that you will do any of these things.”

Commissioner Carolyn Mason said she wants assurances that the recommendations will be followed. “I am concerned about how this board will monitor this action plan,” she said. “How are we going to know that this action plan’s being followed or not followed, outside of a letter from HUD saying, ‘Oops, you didn’t do this’?” Hadsell answered that his office would compile an annual report on progress being made.

That seemed to satisfy Mason’s concerns. “I think it’s serious enough that we want to dispell those perceptions and those actualities, and so I just want to make sure that we are doing what we said we were going to do in the action plan.”

In the end, the commission unanimously certified the report. Hadsell told the board his office would update the commission next year on the area’s fair housing situation.