January 11, 2016; New York Law Journal

The New York Law Journal reports that the plaintiffs in the fair housing case against the German-American Settlement League in the village of Yaphank, New York, have settled their claims of discrimination based on national origin.

As covered in the NPQ Newswire last October, the Kneer family was blocked from advertising the sale of a house that they owned in the Long Island community because of a restrictive covenant in the deed that was a legacy from the days when Yaphank was home to Nazi sympathizers. When first reported in the New York Times on October 19th, the German-American Settlement League maintained that the deed restrictions were not about Nazism but a reflection of a proud ethnic heritage.

Frustrated by the restriction, the Kneers turned to Long Island Housing Services (LIHS) for counseling and support. Private fair housing agencies are nonprofits, created by housing advocates in communities around the country and often supported in part by HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. According to the New York Law Journal story, “Under the agreement filed Thursday, the league would discard its old constitution and by-laws and adopt a new one declaring membership open to all backgrounds. Long Island Housing Services, a co-plaintiff, will monitor board minutes and membership applications for four years.”

LIHS describes its mission as “the elimination of unlawful discrimination and promotion of decent and affordable housing through advocacy and education.” But besides providing expert knowledge of the law and real estate practice, the strength that a private fair housing agency brings to an aggrieved complainant like the Kneers is “organizational standing” that permits the agency to bring a fair housing complaint.

For the past several years, private fair housing agencies have been under attack in Congress and around the country. Opponents of fair housing agencies argue that these nonprofits prey on innocent landlords in order to win settlements that support their programs. This past year, as Congress struggled with end-of-the-session appropriations to prevent a government shutdown, a rider attached to the appropriations bill would have blocked federal funding to private fair housing agencies. In Ohio, a concerted effort to hamstring fair housing enforcement by the National Real Estate Investors Association and its Ohio affiliate was blocked by fair housing advocates in 2014 and 2015, supported by a barrage of newspaper editorials.

Private fair housing agencies will probably continue to be targets of property interests and ideologically motivated opponents. Such agencies act as the front door of enforcement where ordinary citizens who believe that something is wrong can find a sympathetic ear and a professional analysis of their stories. As discrimination becomes less obvious, their investigative expertise becomes ever more important to citizens and communities.—Spencer Wells