by Jordan Green
High Point City Council looks to revamp the city’s fair housing program, as the human relations director fights for her job.
The High Point City Council is looking to revamp its ordinance governing fair housing complaints as Al Heggins, the department head previously responsible for that process, faces an ever more tenuous employment situation.
The city council held a special meeting on Sept. 11, and voted unanimously to direct the city manager to develop a system of intake facilitation of fair housing complaints and bring it back to council for approval. Council members indicated they are interested in a system by which complaints would be received by city staff, and then forwarded to the state Human Relations Commission in Raleigh for investigation.
Council members acknowledged at the outset of the meeting to being confused about the city’s fair housing program. City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle, Community Development & Housing Director Mike McNair and Communications & Public Engagement Director Jeron Hollis were on hand to answer questions. The one knowledgeable person who wasn’t present was Human Relations Director Al Heggins.
Heggins, who has filed a discrimination complaint against the city with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is currently on suspension. The city confirmed on Monday that Heggins had been placed on suspension without pay effective Sept. 4 through today for a total of six work days.
When Carlyle was unable to tell council members how many fair housing complaints the city had processed, Councilman Chris Williams asked, “Do we have anyone from the human relations department to give us that information?”
Hollis, who has been handling complaint intake in Heggins’ absence, said the state Human Relations Commission quantifies the number of complaints by county and was unable to provide data specific to the city.
Mayor Bill Bencini pointed out that under the ordinance, all valid fair housing complaints should eventually reach the city manager and city attorney for review.
“Obviously, that process has not been followed,” Carlyle said. “That’s why we’re not able to provide you any other information. That is the appropriate way and the legal way for it to be done.”
“So we really haven’t followed our own ordinance?” Bencini rejoined.
“Exactly,” Carlyle said.
Heggins lawyer said any suggestion that city ordinances weren’t followed under Heggins’ administration amount to retaliation, alluding to complaints from the police department about a sensitivity training she helped put on.
“She does a job for the city, and she’s been reviewed; she’s never had a negative review,” Alston said. “For them to say that she’s doing something she shouldn’t be doing, how come it took so long for someone to address it?”
Referencing his client’s suspension, Alston continued, “She isn’t even allowed to be on city property. They’ve effectively banned her from being a citizen. Why can’t she even go to a park — why can’t she go to a concert?
“She has no commentary for people who bar her from opening her mouth,” Alston said. “She can’t even file a grievance because she can’t be on city property.”
Alston added that he is eager for the city to respond to Heggins’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, which was filed in May, so he can see them in court.
“Her position is she’s on suspension, and they’re just looking for a reason to fire her right now,” he said.
The question about how many fair housing complaints have been handled by the city eventually received a response McNair. He said Heggins’ department reported to him that there had been 25 investigations and 324 inquiries in the 2014-15 fiscal year for the city’s annual report to the US Department of Housing & Urban Development.
McNair’s report elicited a chorus of comments from council members and senior administrators to the effect that many tenants are confused about the difference between fair housing — which relates to discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, handicap or familial status — and minimal housing standards, which have to do with the quality or condition of rental housing.
Council members wrestled with the distinction themselves, alluding to the potential overlap between the two types of cases if a landlord were to refuse to make repairs as a weapon to target certain types of tenants. Williams cited a constituent who contacted him as an example.
“Basically what she was saying was the landlord was doing certain things,” Williams said. “He didn’t know who she was until he had to come there for some reason. And when he saw who she was he started doing things in the hope that she would want to leave.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis, a builder by trade, wasn’t buying it.
“That’s still not fair housing,” he said. “Fair housing’s like when you discriminate, say, ‘I’m not gonna rent my house to you…’”
That was exactly his point, Williams said, adding that the tenant alleged that when the landlord found out who she was he stopped making repairs in hopes that she would leave. He also said that the landlord backed off after he spoke to him about the matter.
City council adopted a local fair housing ordinance in 2007, giving the Human Relations Commission the power to receive complaints, investigate and hold hearings. Under the ordinance, the commission could require answers to interrogatories and take testimony under oath, but only with the approval of the city manager and city attorney.
As city attorney, Carlyle said she was only aware of one complaint rising to the level of review by herself and former City Manager Strib Boynton. “I got the impression that the reason we got involved was because it was someone who knew Strib personally in the community,” she said, “and they had reached out directly to him.”
Cam Cridlebaugh, a former co-chair of the human relations commission who is currently the president of the High Point Regional Association of Realtors, said notwithstanding the language of the local ordinance, commissioners rarely received information from staff.
“Often I would ask staff about the fair housing complaints and the numbers and how that was progressing,” he told council. Almost always, he said, their response was, “Well, we’ll get back to you on that.”
Despite the language in the ordinance empowering the human relations commission to investigate complaints, High Point is not among the five local governments certified by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as being “substantially equivalent” to the federal government in terms of procedures, remedies and judicial review. Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham, Charlotte/Mecklenburg County and Orange County hold the certification.
McNair said that in 2006 and 2007 Heggins and other city leaders were interested in seeking “substantial equivalency.”
“There was an argument that fair housing cases were sort of being swept under the rug or not being dealt with because the process was far too onerous or complex for the typical citizen to go forward and have it adjudicated,” said Bencini, who was serving on council at the time.
Echoing other members, Councilman Jason Ewing said the city should have a fair housing liaison to receive complaints, but leave the heavy lifting to investigators in Raleigh.
“I’ve heard in the past that people were asked — it was a minimum housing issue, but then they were led — ‘Are you sure it wasn’t because you were this, you were that?’” he said. “And then turned it into a fair housing issue.”