This month, Committee Fair Housing Staff Attorney Catherine Cone shares some details about her work, our clients, and life in DC.
In a nutshell, what do you do at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee?
I work on individual and collective or class action housing discrimination cases for the Committee. In a nutshell, I have the opportunity to ensure that individuals regardless of their race, family status, national origin, source of income, or sexual orientation have the ability to secure and keep a home and live in their homes free of discriminatory treatment. Because a lot of discrimination is less blatant these days, I also spend a lot of time developing cases that challenge neutral policies which have a discriminatory effect. A great example of this are landlords who have overly punitive criminal history screening policies which often ban all felonies or any type of criminal record (often referred to as a blanket ban). These policies often leave tenant applicants with criminal histories facing homelessness or limited housing options which often include living in unsafe conditions. One of our clients, Maurice Alexander, experienced prolonged homelessness due to such policies.
Finally, some of my newer work focuses on ensuring that properties which have underlying subsidies attached to them that are set to expire transition to market rate or mixed-income housing in a way that does not run afoul of fair housing laws. That means that we keep a watchful eye on whether redevelopments of properties which are often home to low-income families of color do not eliminate or significantly reduce family-sized housing or impose discriminatory terms and conditions on former tenants as compared to the more affluent and often white newcomers who come to live at the redeveloped properties. Our Brookland Manor case challenges a policy that would eliminate family-sized housing and leave over a hundred families without a home in the redevelopment.
My ultimate goal is to ensure we are promoting and protecting inclusive communities.
What’s something that has surprised you about fair housing advocacy?
I think I am most surprised by the breadth of housing discrimination in our DC metro area. It is unfortunate to see how many different types of ways housing providers will find—whether intentional or unintentional—to erect barriers to equal housing opportunity. For example, we have seen how landlords continue to refuse to rent units to Housing Choice Voucher (formerly Section 8) holders, particularly in more white and affluent neighborhoods. Data also shows that the majority of DC-based Voucher holders, who are over 92% African American, currently live in predominantly African-American communities, some of which are areas of concentrated poverty. As a result, these neighborhoods have become even more racially concentrated. The District is currently the sixth most segregated city in the country. The reason this all matters is because families should have a choice to live in the neighborhoods and properties where they wish to live rather than where they are required to live as a result of discriminatory policies and practices.
On a positive note, I am constantly surprised by the courage of our clients, including the many tenant communities who fight to protect their communities and combat displacement.
Tell us about one of the clients you’ve worked with.
I remember the first time I met Ms. Melikt Mengiste. She was deeply upset and worried by her inability to find housing just months before her second child was due. Ms. Mengiste explained to my colleague and me how she had been denied housing by a cooperative association in her neighborhood, specifically for a two-bedroom unit that would have permitted her family to move out of their studio apartment. We eventually learned that she had been refused housing because of her national origin (Ethiopian) and that Ms. Mengiste was the target of discriminatory statements intended to convey that Ethiopians were not welcome at the property.
Because the landlord refused to rent to Ms. Mengiste, she was required to live in cramped quarters with her husband, sister, son, and eventual newborn for at least eight months. Although she eventually found housing, Ms. Mengiste’s story illustrates how discrimination both leaves a person or family without the ability to find housing and causes long-lasting emotional distress on those who have experienced discrimination. In Ms. Mengiste’s case, the discriminatory denial of housing also disrupted her family life and made her everyday routine much harder as we described in the complaint. Although her new home is larger and able to adequately house her family, it is significantly further from her work, her child’s daycare, and a grocery store.
What’s your idea of a perfect Saturday in DC?
My perfect Saturday is waking up and having a leisurely morning where I sit outside with a cup of coffee and a book. Ideally, I would make it to a yoga class afterward to gain some clarity of mind. I generally try to also visit a museum, stroll through a garden, or join a friend for one of the many live music or community gathering events the City has to offer, especially in the summer months.
Thank you Catherine!
For more information about the Washington Lawyers’ Committee’s fair housing matters, or if you’ve been discriminated against in housing, contact Amal Mimish at Amal_Mimish@washlaw.org or 202-319-1000.