An interview with Lauren Green-Hull, associate director, Fair Housing Contact Service

In recognition of Fair Housing Month, the Big Ideas team sat down with Lauren Green-Hull, associate director of our region’s Fair Housing Contact Service - one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the country. She helped shed light on the basic concept of fair housing and why services are needed to prevent and eliminate housing discrimination and promote equal housing opportunity.


Big Ideas: Good morning Lauren! Thanks for your time. Please tell us a little about yourself and your role at your organization.

Lauren: I serve as the associate director at Fair Housing Contact Service - where our mission is to prevent and eliminate housing discrimination and promote equal housing opportunity. I have been with the agency now for 15 years in a variety of roles over that time, but I spend the vast majority of my time focused on issues of housing discrimination. Fair Housing Contact Service was started 59 years ago, and we actually predate our modern fair housing laws. We are one of the oldest continuously operating fair housing groups in the country.

Big Ideas: Do you serve just Akron?

Lauren: No, we have a much broader footprint. Our primary service area includes the seven counties of Medina, Portage, Summit, Stark, Wayne, Mahoning and Columbiana. But people contact us from outside that region. If there's not another private fair housing group that services their area, then we will assist them.

Big Ideas: Can you explain the basics of the fair housing concept for our readers?

Lauren: Fair Housing Contact Service provides a variety of housing services, including information and education on Landlord-Tenant rights and responsibilities, addressing issues of housing discrimination, and assisting homeowners with first-time homebuyer education and foreclosure intervention counseling.  We do this work because we recognize that housing is the “social determinant of all”. What does this mean? It means that where and how you live determines everything about your life - whether that's education, occupation, transportation, even access to healthy foods. And so our agency is here to be a resource, an educator, and an advocate around issues that jeopardize housing. Specifically, we deal a lot with issues of housing discrimination. This comes into play when folks believe they're being treated differently in their housing because of a characteristic that is covered under the law such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, family status - and here in our local area, there are a few other protections including source of income, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression. Simply put - you can't be treated differently related to housing because of those characteristics. Our agency helps protect those rights. We also have the standing to conduct investigations and bring claims of discrimination when warranted. So that we can work to eliminate housing discrimination in our community. 
Big Ideas: I heard you say “social determinant of all” earlier. Tell us more about that term. We often hear about the social determinants of health, but this is a new spin.

Lauren: That’s what we believe - that housing is the social determinant of all. Of everything else that matters for life, stability, and wellbeing. The term social determinants of health has come out of the medical community and provides some powerful measuring points. But we believe that housing is the most fundamental - it's the social determinant of all because all of the other measurements are impacted by it. Where you work does not impact your access to healthy food. Where your child goes to school does not impact your access to transportation. But all of those other social determinants are 100% impacted by the quality and location of the housing that somebody lives in.

Big Ideas: Tell us about some common fair housing issues - both locally and nationally.

Lauren: The number one issue in the country and here in our area is disability. Concerns related to disability discrimination make up more than 50% of issues across the country and more than 70% of the complaints that come to us locally. Second is race. And our rates around racial discrimination grew dramatically in 2017 - in fact literally doubling from 2016 to 2017. Family status is another area where we see a lot of complaints, with the law protecting the right to have minor children in the home. 

Big Ideas: The bump in race is interesting. What is happening there?

Lauren: I would say that bump - or something like it - was probably also happening in the rest of the country at that time. I think a lot of things changed in this country in 2017 and 2018 when it came to the recognition of racial discrimination. And I think that folks began to understand that what they were experiencing was racial discrimination, and they became unafraid to name it as such. The more overt acts of discrimination had been acknowledged for a while. But at the same time so many folks were being discriminated against and just not realizing it was related to their race. Changes in awareness and culture helped us start to put all of the dots together and realize - oh, all of this has been happening because of my race.

Big Ideas: That makes a lot of sense and sounds positive that these cases are making their way to you. What are some other recent wins for your organization?

Lauren: We’ve had some really great wins locally. At the top of the list, we've been able to add additional protections in a number of municipalities - specifically in the city of Akron - around sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and source of income. Additionally, as a community, we are really focused on trying to address the eviction crisis that is happening in our area. And the collaboration that has come from that has been really healthy for our community. We're still working on making some substantive change, but the willingness is there and I think that is one large hurdle that other communities haven't been able to overcome. At the national level, Akron is being looked at as a model for its Akron Civil Rights Commission and how it can be potentially replicated in other communities.

Big Ideas: What about room for growth?

Lauren: Challenges always remain. People still discriminate…not enough housing, not enough affordable housing, increases in housing costs, a lack of rental assistance…. The provision of rental assistance is definitely a huge gap in our area. Housing costs are typically the highest expense in a lower income family’s budget. When there's no support and assistance for when times get tough, then it becomes very hard to be able to maintain safe, healthy, affordable housing. This gap increases the need for our services. Another emerging issue is around the use of criminal background checks as screening tools for potential tenants. The problem here is that this practice is having a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color, specifically Black and Brown men, because that is who is disproportionately involved in our criminal legal system. It can mean families are not accessing housing simply based on the color of their skin and nothing else.

Big Ideas: In our blog, we like to think about what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and what are some big ideas to make things better. From a systemic standpoint, what are fair housing advocates pushing forward to make that big picture change?

Lauren: Without a doubt, the full development of a right to counsel program in our community is at the top of that list. There has been a commitment to that in the CIty of Akron, and we’d really like to see it continue to move forward. We'd also like to see our community develop a general rental assistance fund. When we have a tenant committing suicide because they’ve been set out of their long-term rental over $450 - that sort of tragedy should not be happening in our resource-rich community. There should be a general rental assistance fund to assist folks who have that one time need.

Big Ideas: Anything else readers should know?

Lauren: Many may not know this, but we do provide services to both residents and housing providers. Our services truly are for everyone and we are going to tell folks the exact same thing regardless of who you are.

Big Ideas: Lauren, thank you so much for your time and all your great work in our region.