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A group that has been fighting for fair housing since 1963 continues to face challenges in a region that remains one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Housing Opportunities Made Equal recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. HOME Executive Director Scott Gehl sat down with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer to discuss efforts to battle various forms of housing discrimination. Here is a summary of some issues covered in an interview that is part of the weekly “In Focus” series.

Meyer: The Buffalo Niagara region remains the sixth most segregated metropolitan area in the country. Doesn’t that fact alone suggest that maybe we’ve failed in this mission?

Gehl: I don’t think that it’s a matter of failure. I think it’s a matter of the challenge ahead of us. Yes, we have that big hill to climb ahead, but things will not change unless we change them. And HOME is determined to lead that charge.

Meyer: The fair housing law that the City of Buffalo passed back in 2006 – was that a step in the right direction?

Gehl: It was, because it’s important that municipalities go on record in favor of fair housing. ...And certainly, there are individual acts of discrimination which we enforce existing patterns of racial segregation. And there are also very many reasons that people are discriminated against beyond race. In terms of data reported to Housing Opportunities Made Equal, for Western New York, the most frequent reason people are denied housing is because families have children. We also have source-of-income discrimination, which is illegal in the City of Buffalo and the towns of Hamburg and West Seneca, but not illegal in the rest of Western New York or New York State – or in the United States. This clearly has a tremendous disparate impact.

Meyer: Tell me about some of the activities that HOME is involved in to try to advance fair housing.

Gehl: One important aspect is education. We have to tell people what their rights are so they understand when those rights are violated. We have to tell people the very subtle ways in which discrimination occurs nowadays. We also do a great deal of training for landlords and housing and service providers. Because very often, people will do the right thing if only they know what the right thing is to do. Indeed, HOME’s services have broadened considerably since the all-volunteer organization was founded back in 1963 by concerned clergy and laity from the Council of Churches. ... Today, we are a multipurpose organization with a level of expertise that is sought out by government, by the housing industry, by lenders from time to time. HOME serves nearly 5,000 people a year, and we touch another 2,500 through our education efforts. And then we probably touch tens of thousands through literature and through the media that we do.

Meyer: Let’s talk briefly about the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

Gehl: It was an early focus, certainly, in my first decade with HOME. In the middle 1980s, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the region’s largest landlord, had 27 developments. Nine were 90 percent or more African-American and Hispanic. Nine others were 92 percent or more white.

Some public housing developments in the City of Buffalo in the late 1980s had never had a tenant of color. And those just happened to be the better-maintained developments ... There has been significant improvement over time. There are still changes with BMHA, but very often, HOME is able to work in partnership with current management of the authority.