Rachel Watson ‘19 returned to Knox College last Thursday to discuss her work at the HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, Illinois. Watson’s talk sparked a conversation about Fair Housing Act violations in town.
Eighteen students gathered in Ferris Lounge for Watson’s talk, which was organized by Knox’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). Some students were interested in learning about the Fair Housing Act and how it is enforced, while others were interested in the work Watson does and wanted to learn how to get involved.
Watson began working at the HOPE Fair Housing Center as the Community Engagement and Education Coordinator in September of this year. The Center helps enforce the Fair Housing Act across a large portion of Illinois, including Knox County.
Watson started her talk by explaining the history of the Fair Housing Act. The Act was signed into law in 1968 as part of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death is credited for the passing of the Civil Rights Act and, by extension, the Fair Housing Act.
The Fair Housing Act includes seven nationally protected classes. In addition, some states and counties add their own protected classes. Despite the laws in place, cities across America remain highly segregated and many do not know about the protections offered to them under the Act.
Watson described the Fair Housing Act as a law that is “notoriously not enforced.” Watson believes that part of the lack of enforcement is that people don’t know what the Act is or who can help them when someone is in violation of it. HOPE Fair Housing Center is one of the resources these people can go to.
Watson explained that, beyond housing discrimination, the Fair Housing Act includes accommodations for the protected classes it covers. Under the Fair Housing Act, some accommodations can be made with no cost to the person who needs them, like service dogs and disability parking spaces, but costs for other accommodations, like grab bars in bathrooms and wider doors for a wheelchair, fall on the person who needs them.
The HOPE Fair Housing Center is a resource for protected classes who feel they are being discriminated against while looking for housing. When they discover a possible Fair Housing Act violation, the Center investigates and tests the claims before working to enforce the Act and make policy changes.
To conclude her talk, Watson discussed example cases with students. Some of the students in the audience had learned of Fair Housing Act violations they had experienced without realizing it and stayed to talk to Watson.
Others, like senior Fiona Munro, stayed to talk to Watson about ways to get involved. Munro looks out for advocacy opportunities and she felt some of her hometown could benefit from the HOPE Fair Housing Center’s services.