HUD homes in on better fair-housing laws

Fair Housing! I support it. President Reagan supports it. All America needs it.m -Samuel J. Pierce So reads a poster placed at elevators, on walls, and in highly visible spots throughout the John F. Kennedy federal building in Boston's Government Center. Similar posters will be displayed in federal office buildings across the nation by the end of the year.

Mr. Pierce, secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has declared fair housing a top priority for 1984. And he says he has the backing of President Reagan.

HUD's fair-housing pivot man, Antonio Monroig, has a message he is taking to the nation:

''Too many people still can't find a decent place to live because they are handicapped, black, or Hispanic, or because they are women trying to raise their own families.

''The nation has achieved giant steps since the original fair-housing legislation - Title VIII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) we call it - was passed. Yet more cases of discrimination are being filed with HUD today than ever before.''

The 6,000 cases filed during fiscal year 1983 are ''only the tip of the iceberg,'' says Mr. Monroig, HUD assistant secretary of fair housing and equal opportunity. One way HUD hopes to improve the situation is to get Congress to pass legislation to give fair-housing laws more teeth, Monroig told the New England office of HUD.

The key points of proposed legislation before Congress would:

* Set higher penalties for violators ($50,000 for first offense and up to $ 100,000 for subsequent violations).

* Extend coverage to the handicapped.

* Increase statute of limitations - time allowed to file a complaint after date of alleged offense - from 180 days to two years.

* Eliminate the $1,000 cap on punitive damages. Let the courts decide.

* Allow federal payment of attorneys' fees for complainants.

* Give the US Justice Department authority to initiate legal action.

Currently HUD relies on the conciliation process to resolve most complaints. ''If this doesn't work, the plaintiff is at a disadvantage,'' Monroig says. ''Legal action costs too much. . . .''

President Reagan will express his support of fair housing in his State of the Union address, says a HUD spokeswoman. ''And the 1984 budget doesn't slash fair-housing funding, while most HUD programs face cutbacks,'' she adds.

In New England, fair-housing complaints increased by 23 percent since fiscal year 1981, up from 302 in 1981 to 390 in fiscal year 1983 (which ended Sept. 30) , according to statistics released by John C. Mongan, Region I administrator and regional housing commissioner. And in Boston, figures have revealed a new ''victim'' of housing bias - the Vietnamese.

Nationally, 90 percent of all complaints are in rental housing, Monroig says. ''In recent years, an increasing number of females heading households are having difficulty in finding adequate housing,'' he adds. ''The big majority of cases involve racial discrimination - more than 90 percent black and nearly 6 percent Hispanic.''

Volunteer organizations in several cities have stimulated progress in fair housing, Monroig says. Landmark cases initiated by such groups - HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equal) in Richmond, Va., and others - have established the right to ''test'' landlords and real estate agencies for housing discrimination, he says. (Most advocacy groups send a white and a minority to visit landlords and real estate agencies to request similar housing.)

Currently HUD offers fair-housing information to the public in two ways - Federal Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) and an outreach program, Monroig says. Regional FHAP offices are in Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Chicago; Fort Worth, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Denver; San Francisco; and Seattle.

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