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Fight for fair housing, one man's story

As group marks 40th anniversary of fair housing act, a Happy Valley man tells his story

Brian McComiskey had been telling his apartment managers for months; put down something solid, even something cheap like a highway snow fence, from the sidewalk to his patio door. Otherwise he was going to get stuck once the rain started.

McComiskey, 71, uses a motorized scooter. There were steps leading to his front door, so he used the patio to get out. He'd moved to the Sunnyside Place Apartments in Happy Valley last spring and knew that by fall he'd need another solution.

But, he said, the managers ignored the request.

'I told them we had to get this done and they said, 'it's a low priority,'' he said. 'I said it's a low priority for you, I have to do all my shopping and everything,' and if there's no solid path, 'I'd get snowed in for the winter.'

Their situation culminated with McComiskey getting stuck and trying to crawl home. He filed a fair housing complaint and won a settlement.

Some activists say that despite the passage of the Federal Fair Housing Act 40 years ago, housing discrimination still occurs on a fairly regular basis in Oregon.

McComiskey knew he'd get stuck eventually, but he'd never been one to sit still. Diagnosed with polio at 10, he was told not to leave his bed. But he gradually learned how to get around, first by wheelchair, then, when he realized he couldn't travel by bus in a wheelchair in the 1950s, he learned to use crutches.

And then he jumped on a boat headed for Tangiers.

'I like moving, having spent so much time laying in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling,' he said.

He traveled all over North Africa, Europe and the United States. So McComiskey wasn't going to entertain the idea of being stuck at home for the winter.

'In the fall it had rained, kind of a drizzly rain, it wasn't very heavy, but I had a load of garbage that had to go out,' he said.

He went out and followed along the hedges like he usually did. He had just gotten past the second apartment when his motorized scooter bogged down in the soft, wet grass.

'I tried every trick in the book, but these things don't really do very much,' he said. 'I dug down to the transmission, and that's when I knew I was stuck.'

So McComiskey slumped out of his chair. And he started crawling home.

Two other tenants saw him and carried him and the scooter home.

'And that's when I got really, I was just really disgusted,' he said. 'They just kept putting me off, it was a low priority … and that's what [led to me] calling the fair housing people.'

Discimination still exists

'It's a significant barrier for people to be able to choose the house they want, and it continues to be a problem,' said Moloy Good, acting executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.

Every year, around 2,500 Oregonians dial the Portland-based housing council's hot line to register complaints about housing discrimination. After investigating, council staff determine about 200 to 300 of them are 'bona fide examples of discrimination,' Good said. A disproportionate share of the cases, sometimes more than half, occur in the Portland area.

In one recent case, a landlord near Cleveland High School denied housing to a woman because she had two teenage children. After an investigation, the landlord agreed to a $34,000 settlement.

In the Cedar Mill neighborhood just outside the city limits, Sivagami 'Shivy' Vanka said neighbors have harassed her for teaching Indian classical dance at her home.

Another landlord gave a tenant 30 days to move out of a Portland apartment because he had a gay lover visiting him at the unit, Hess said.

This month, the Fair Housing Council of Oregon is shining a light on housing discrimination to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act. One of the highlights of the group's April 30 celebration will be a guided bus tour through Portland sites where housing discrimination took place.

Oregon's original 1859 Constitution barred blacks from moving into the state, and prohibited blacks and Chinese from buying property if they didn't live here at the time of statehood.

In 1919, the Portland Realty Board code of ethics barred real estate agents from selling property in white neighborhoods to blacks or Asians. 'You could be drummed out of the board of Realtors for violating that,' Hess said.

For decades, Portland real estate agents reinforced segregation when working with clients. 'The new African-Americans would be steered to Albina,' Hess said.

The Portland Housing Authority segregated blacks and whites in public housing projects, including the huge Vanport community hastily erected during World War II around current-day Delta Park.

Oregon banned segregation by enacting the landmark Public Accommodations Act in 1953, followed by fair housing laws in 1957 and 1959.

The federal law bars housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, familial status, and mental or physical disabilities. It applies to housing-related rentals, sales, lending, insurance, land-use regulations, zoning and development.

The state enacted additional protections based on marital status, age and, starting this year, sexual orientation. Federal law specifically protects non-citizens from housing discrimination as well, Good said.

For many years, formal complaints about housing discrimination have been routed to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The cases are then resolved at hearings conducted by administrative law judges, in court trials or through negotiated settlements.

Oregonians filing complaints can expect swifter action on their cases in coming months. The state Bureau of Labor and Industries soon will take over investigations on behalf of HUD.

State lawmakers passed legislation in 2007 and in February this year to make state law compatible with federal protections, enabling HUD to delegate cases to the Portland-based state agency.

Cases will be handled in a similar fashion, but the state agency promises to end long waits for the airing of complaints.