Tacoma could lose housing, employment discrimination investigators amid COVID budget cuts

Tacoma could lose housing, employment discrimination investigators amid COVID budget cuts
Downtown Tacoma, as seen from the Thea Foss waterway

TACOMA, Wash. — Advocates in Tacoma are pushing back against a decision that would eliminate the city’s civil rights investigators, arguing the loss would be detrimental to Tacoma residents as a potential tidal wave of evictions looms.

Executive leadership at the city, made up of members from City Manager Elizabeth Pauli’s office, various department directors and assistant directors, decided earlier this year to end the contract with two federal agencies, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in light of a $67 million budget deficit due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cuts were proposed due to the cost to operate the programs, which exceeded the amount of reimbursement the city received through its contracts with the federal agencies, city staff said.

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The contracts include funding for two civil rights investigators: one to resolve fair housing discrimination claims and one to resolve employment and public accommodation discrimination claims. Both also engage in outreach and educational activities.

After some public opposition, the city is now reconsidering that decision and is closely evaluating budget priorities, according to city spokesperson Megan Snow.

The city’s Human Rights Commission drafted a letter to city officials on Tuesday, stating its members were “vehemently opposed” to the termination of the investigators.

“The absence of civil rights investigation and investigators in Tacoma will eliminate the opportunity for education and outreach regarding employment and housing discrimination,” the letter stated. “No monetary value can be placed on the benefits of having non-discriminatory practices in the City of Tacoma.”

Salary and benefits for each investigator is approximately $120,000 per year. Funding for both positions comes from the city’s general fund — approximately 75 percent — and reimbursements from EEOC and HUD for investigation completions — approximately 25 percent.

Last year, the investigators received more than 100 complaints each and closed 7 cases.

WHAT DO CIVIL RIGHTS INVESTIGATORS DO?

Civil rights investigators look into discrimination complaints based on race, disability, gender and more.

Tina McLeod, program manager for the Landlord Liaison Program at Associated Ministries in Tacoma, gave an example of housing discrimination by family status.

A father of two might find an ad for a unit and express interest to the apartment owner, she said. The owner asks who the unit is for, and when the father says it’s for his kids and him, the owner says the unit isn’t available or perhaps not the best fit.

Later, a friend calls to inquire about the unit, stating he has no kids and is seeking to live alone — and the apartment unit suddenly becomes available.

The father could feel he was discriminated against and file a complaint through the city of Tacoma. That complaint would land on the desk of the city’s housing investigators.

They also field calls and determine whether or not a complaint is worthy of investigation. They conduct outreach and build relationships within the community.

Having the investigators means “people in Tacoma have direct access to justice,” McLeod said.

When people face housing discrimination, they also face housing insecurity and possibly homelessness, she added. The number of people reported homeless in Pierce County has been trending up in recent years.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some advocates are worried about a wave of evictions following the end of Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium, which prohibits landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment. Inslee extended the moratorium until Oct. 15.

Chris Ferguson, president of the Associated Ministries board, said it’s possible housing discrimination complaints could increase when the moratorium is lifted.

“Sooner or later, we’re going to be facing a tsunami of evictions,” he said, adding that “it seems poor timing” to let go of the civil rights investigators now.

Associated Ministries passed a resolution in June advocating to protect the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights department from unequal budget cuts, especially in the wake of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“In this time of exposure of increased inequities that already existed … it’s really time to strengthen our housing equity work, and not reduce it,” McCleod said.

WORKING ON A PLAN

In the absence of civil rights investigators, city staff developed options for how to continue the program, including reducing hours of the positions, creating a memorandum of understanding with the state or hiring an independent contractor to provide services.

Jurisdictions across the state already refer housing and employment discrimination inquiries to the Washington State Human Rights Commission, but that comes with a downside.

“Tacoma residents will likely experience longer wait times in getting their discrimination issues resolved, due to the state’s extensive volume of cases,” Snow said.

That response time could increase from 1-2 days to 3-4 months, according to city documents.

“There are a number of consequences both in terms of people who are going to lose housing in the upcoming wave or lose employment in the upcoming wave and will have no recourse at a practical level to complain, because instead of complaining to the city and getting a reasonably rapid response, they will have to complain to HUD and/or to the State of Washington,” Al Ratcliffe, member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, said at a recent Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness meeting.

The Human Rights Commission worries the loss of investigators would reduce the ability to enforce parts of city code related to unlawful discriminatory employment and housing practices. The commission also says the decision would go against a resolution passed by Tacoma City Council in June, which prioritizes anti-racist measures during the budget development process.

“Such action would only serve to perpetuate systemic racism in our city,” the commission’s letter states.

A solution could be on the way.

City Council member Catherine Ushka said that she was made aware of the changes after outreach from the community.

“I am not in favor of a loss of housing discrimination investigators at the city, and I suspect my peers agree,” Ushka said in an email. “I understand that the city manager is also aware of these concerns, and my anticipation is some solution in her upcoming budget proposal. Certainly as we face an uncertain future as a city, particularly as it relates to housing and rental housing, prioritizing advocacy and stability will continue to be a top priority for me.”

As the city faces a loss of millions, difficult decisions have to be made — but Gerrit Nyland, director of client information systems for Catholic Community Services in Tacoma, said at a recent Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness that the city should provide some sort of reasoning to the public.

“We are having bad budget times,” Nyland said at the meeting. “It may be necessary to eliminate things that we really care about, like this. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a public discussion about it.”