Fair Housing Center of West Michigan deservedly honored with Liberty Bell

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The happy crew from the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan who attended the April 28 Law Day Luncheon are, left to right: Education and Outreach Coordinator Madelaine Clapp, Fair Housing Specialist Mandy Zweifel-Hughes, Fair Housing Specialist and Office Coordinator George Jeffries (back), Executive Director Nancy Haynes, Test Coordinator Gabe Chapla (back), former Executive Director Lee Nelson Weber, Board President Doretha Ardoin, and Director of Education and Outreach Liz Keegan. Unable to attend was Elizabeth Stoddard, the Director of Advocacy.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO  BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Though the Liberty Bell Award is given each year as part of Law Day to recognize “outstanding service performed by a non-lawyer citizen or a non-profit organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of justice,” the Executive Director of this year’s award winner, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan (FHCWM), Nancy Haynes, is herself a lawyer.

And that is fitting, considering the   nature of the work that FHCWM does in the community.

In pursuing housing discrimination claims, Fair Housing Centers  must comply with both the Federal Fair Housing Act (originally enacted in 1968) and whatever state and local laws are considered applicable.

The Fair Housing Act, administered by the Federal Housing and Urban Development agency, originally prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, and national origin; in 1988, disability and familial status were added. But, as Haynes points out, there are local ordinances that apply as well, such as the City of Grand Rapids adding protections for sexual orientation.

When you add to that the need to pursue related civil rights infringements — recent FHCWM cases have concerned sexual harassment of renters,  for example — as well as continually evolving case law precedent, and the need to analyze what makes for a strong case, the situation gets very complicated very quickly.

Haynes acknowledges that her legal training helps the agency a lot, but says that non-attorney members of the staff contribute an amazing amount.

“Very sincerely, I?love that the award went to the Fair Housing Center as an organization,” Haynes says, “because we’re a team. These professionals I work with are bar none the top in the country, so this award really meant so much because it was to the center.”

She credits the FHCWM Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth Stoddard, in particular. With a math background, Stoddard is able to organize data so that “everything kind of stacks on top of each other, which is how you make a good systemic case,” according

to Haynes. “I think Elizabeth is the smartest legal mind never to go to law school,” she adds.

That case-building is used most often not to win in court, but to make the landlord/lender/homeowner/realtor aware of problems so that real change can occur. That is not to say that none of the patterns of discrimination warrant turning the evidence over to enforcement, but the overall goal is to work with people in the community — a legacy from Haynes’ predecessor, Lee Nelson Weber.

“I can’t imagine a better former Executive Director,” says Haynes about Weber. “Everything we are today we can trace back to her. She’s really something.”

From the beginning, the West Michigan center has had an emphasis on education and outreach, both generally and in specific cases. They sponsor training in housing law for realtors, conduct programming and prepare materials for the schools, and pursue advocacy based on monitoring what is going on and identifying patterns of discrimination in housing choice. They are currently working with a group of spoken word artists to shape and deliver their message.

FHCWM, which covers Allegan, Grand Traverse, Ionia, Isabella, Kent, Mecosta, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana, Osceola and Ottawa counties, has an unusual rationale for existence. In the 1970s, community leaders in Grand Rapids looked around at the “white flight” from the city itself, which was making Grand Rapids Public Schools less racially diverse. Rather than address this by busing people in, the thought was to find ways to integrate the residential neighborhoods which fed into the schools. A broad-based committee visited the Fair Housing Center of Detroit, and, on a shoestring, the Fair Housing Center of Greater Grand Rapids was formed in 1980. Later, a merger with the Holland Fair Housing Center resulted in a name and geographic-focus change.

During those years, Haynes was attending college and starting out her legal career. Born in Detroit, she lived all over the country because her father was in the military. After attending Indiana’s Hanover College, she received her J.D. from Indiana University Law School.

Haynes started her legal career out at Buchanan and Bos. She credits Carole Bos with being a mentor, as well as Bradley Glazier, who now shares a practice with  Bos.

Interestingly, Glazier, who contributes a great deal to the GRBA,  presented the Liberty Bell Award to the organization.

Haynes had clerked at Mika Meyers and moved her practice there, but soon realized there was something different in store for her. “An attorney had a case that was referred from the Detroit Fair Housing Center, and thought that sounded like something I’d be interested in. We resolved the case, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is why I went to law school,’” Haynes says.

She applied for the E.D. position in 1999 and has loved it ever since, at least in part because of the impressive  and dedicated staff.

“They’re so talented, there’s so much expertise, that many a day I feel like I don’t have to be here,” she says. “I think we have the most longevity of any fair housing staff in the country.”

Haynes adds that, in addition to a wonderful board — Doretha Ardoin is the long-time chair and Andrea Crumback of Mika Meyers is a member — much credit goes to the cooperating attorneys who help FHCWM pursue the legal side of its mission.

“We would request help based on the facts of the case, to make sure it’s a good fit. And we give the names to the client, who would call you. There would a be a dialogue, and if there are issues, if it doesn’t seem like it’s developed enough, whatever, you would just let us know,” Haynes says.

To offer their time, attorneys should call 616-451-2980 or visit the web site, www.fhcwm.org.

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