In 1984, the NAACP sued the city of Norwalk, CT, alleging rampant housing discrimination. Connecticut Legal Services stood shoulder to shoulder with the NAACP, representing a handful of African-American plaintiffs who had themselves been the victims of unfair housing discrimination.
Now, 34 years later, CLS is proud to represent the Norwalk NAACP in negotiations with the city to protect the legacy of that lawsuit.
The 1984 litigation ended in a settlement, with the city agreeing to create and fully fund a new Fair Housing Officer position. The settlement has the Fair Housing Officer reporting to an independent Fair Housing Advisory Commission, whose members are designated by a number of stakeholders in Norwalk, including CLS itself. The Commission, and the Fair Housing Officer as its staff, are charged with monitoring conditions, responding to complaints, and taking remedial action to ensure that every person in Norwalk can access stable housing without fear of discrimination because of race, ethnicity, gender, or any other improper reason.
The Fair Housing Officer has been an important protection against discrimination in a city where — as in much of Fairfield County — affordable housing has become increasingly hard to come by. In the fall of 2017, for instance, Margaret Suib, the current Fair Housing Officer, helped institute a program of housing testing in Norwalk. In the tests, investigators posing as renters approached a group of 10 landlords and asked to rent property. Half of the testers were people of color; the other half were white. Unfortunately, the results strongly suggested discrimination, with 7 out of 10 landlords treating the minority investigators less favorably than the white investigators.
The testing led to city-sponsored training to help landlords recognize and counteract their own implicit biases. And the entire episode shows why the Fair Housing Officer position remains vitally important in Norwalk.
But in the spring of 2018, the mayor’s office suggested a large-scale reorganization of city government that would have combined the Fair Housing Officer’s position with another existing position and brought the Fair Housing Officer under the mayor’s direct political control. While it appeared to be well-intentioned, the proposal raised a number of concerns for the Norwalk NAACP: Would the Fair Housing Officer be adequately resourced? Would the consolidation detract from a single-minded focus on fighting housing? Would it mean fewer resources going to a position that was never funded as well as it should have been? Would it compromise the relative political independence of the Fair Housing Officer?
That’s when the Norwalk NAACP and CLS joined forces again, with CLS signing on to represent the NAACP as it negotiated with the city over proposed reorganization. The consent decree forbids altering or reorganizing the Fair Housing Officer position without the NAACP’s consent. But the NAACP isn’t categorically opposed to change — just change that would have the effect of diluting the focus, funding, and independence of the Fair Housing Officer annd the Commission. That’s why CLS’ team, led by Litigation and Advocacy Director Anne Louise Blanchard and Housing Unit Managing Attorney Nilda Havrilla, has opened up a good-faith negotiation with the city to try and satisfy the city’s desire for streamlined service delivery while continuing to strengthen fair housing protections in Norwalk.