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Fair housing law gains momentum for passage

A renewed push to pass Buffalo's first fair housing law is gaining momentum, a move that would prevent discrimination based on how applicants earn their incomes.

For example, landlords could not reject prospective tenants based solely on whether they receive public assistance, nor could they turn them down for any other lawful means of generating income. The plan, which is being reviewed by the Common Council, also would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against transsexuals.

Owner-occupied two-family homes would likely be exempt from the proposed law. Council members who support the exemption note that state laws already give more latitude to people who live in their doubles. There has also been discussion about possibly exempting owner-occupied three-unit dwellings, a move that would face opposition from some fair housing advocates.

The fight for a fair housing law in Buffalo began in 1968. The most recent attempts occurred in the 1980s, and both were derailed by vetoes from then-Mayor James D. Griffin.

State and federal laws already provide many protections against many forms of discrimination. But Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson, the bill's sponsor, said federal housing officials have been prodding the city to pass its own law.

Scott W. Gehl, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, said passage of a fair housing law is long overdue, given Buffalo's reputation for being one of the most segregated communities in the nation based on 2000 census data.

Gehl said one key distinction between the proposed law and existing state or federal protections involves the clause about source of income. While landlords could consider factors such as the ability to pay or people's track records as tenants, they could not refuse to rent simply because applicants are on welfare.

"We've found many instances in which source of income has been used as subterfuge to [deny tenancy] to people based on their race, marital status or status of children in their families," said Gehl, who met with Council members Wednesday.

He estimated that more than 10 percent of the thousands of complaints his agency has received involve claims of discrimination based on source of income.

The city law also would expand housing protections to transsexuals.

Council members heard testimony from Camille Hopkins, the first city employee to openly transition from male to female in the workplace after having a sex change operation. Hopkins claims she was evicted from an apartment several years ago because of her transgender status. As the founder of a transgender support group, she said many others have reported similar incidents.

"All they want is safe and secure housing, but [they] live in constant fear of losing it," Hopkins said of transsexuals.

Legislation Committee Chairman Richard A. Fontana said the Council will likely vote on the fair housing law in March.


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