Monday, April 15, 2019

Fair Housing in Memphis

West Tennessee Fair Housing Conference

The National Civil Rights Museum
April 11, 2019

By Tim Wheat
Beverly Watts, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, welcomed the group of about 120 people for the conference. She said that Memphis was the epicenter of the Fair Housing movement 51 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot at the Lorraine Motel, now the NCRM. Also welcoming were Harrison McGiver of the Memphis Area Legal Services, Patrice Thomas from Mayor Lee Harris’ office and Terri Freeman the President of the National Civil Rights Museum.

crowd at the Fair Housing Conference

The Conference got a proclamation from the City of Memphis and the state of Tennessee. The state proclamation updated the language of the Fair Housing Act to “disability,” but the City’s proclamation stated: Handicap. MCIL will have to send a letter to Mayor Strickland and try to get him to update the language in the future. The odd thing is that while the Fair Housing Amendment Act passed in 1998 uses the term handicap many times, just two years later writing the Americans with Disabilities Act, Congress did not use the word handicap once.

The first speaker was Freda Turner of the Memphis Area Legal Services. She spoke about local case US v. Fairfax Manor.  After a history and coverage of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, that requires landlords to provide reasonable accommodations, Ms. Turner explained the facts of the case.

The landlord refused to allow the plaintiffs to move a parking barrier that restricted the accessible route. After making written requests for reasonable accommodation and offering to remove the parking barrier at their own expense, the landlord still refused. In the end, the landlord had to pay sixty-five dollars to remove the parking barrier that the plaintiffs had offered to move. The Landlord paid an additional $52,000.00 in fees and penalties.

Allison Donald at the Fair Housing Conference
“Most discrimination,” concluded Freda Turner, “is illogical and impractical.”

Juanita Hamilton the manager of the City of Memphis’ Down payment Assistance Program facilitated the next panel discussion on Lending and Home Ownership. She told the audience that there was currently a Consumer Survey to get community feedback. A form is available from the THDA website: 

“Eighty percent of the fair housing complaints in Tennessee wer related to disability,” said Ms. Hamilton. “Eighty percent is a pretty significant number.”

Keith Turbett, the Community Development Manager of First Tennessee Bank noted that there is less minority home ownership now than when discrimination was legal. Mr. Turbett spoke of the changing face of banks that may have no physical presence and the need for move mixed-use and mixed-income developments. The panel also said that the Consolidated Plan was being made now and student debt was a crushing problem nationally and in Memphis.

Carlos Segueda of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development spoke following the panel to give an update on HUD. He said that they average 685 complaints a month over his region and that while Tennessee is very similar to national trends, over sixty percent of the complaints relate to disability, higher than the national average. He said that the overall number of Fair Housing complaints is down and he thought that meant that we were getting down to “real discrimination.”

Sabrina Hooper the Deputy Director for the Tennessee Human Rights Commission said that on the state level they had received 1,500 complaints, accepted about 500 and closed 126. She said that although the percentage of disability complaints was not as high as the Region, she said disability complaints have trended up from 2017 53% to 57% in 2018.

Lisa Rice, President of the National Fair Housing Alliance was the keynote speaker for the conference. Her topic was Weaponized Data: how IT Restricts Access and Harms Communities. Ms Rice explained how data is used to create an inequitable system and how apartment pricing can be controlled by data to one day be $1,000, but the next day have increased to $1,300.

Lisa Rice said that data and technology was not innocuous. She explained how she felt that technology was helping to replace human bias with algorithmic bias. A computer can systematize discrimination in the credit market. She explained how the title loan industry has a business model that pushes customers to the brink of delinquency.

audience at the Fair housing conference
The title loan industry is over-represented in minority communities and loans are not well regulated, while traditional bank loans are heavily regulated. Most significantly, people who pay toward their title loans do not get positive reports to credit reporting agencies, they only get negative reports when they do not pay, while traditional loans give positive reports when they are paid. Following the keynote address, Mike Ellis of the Veterans Affairs Officer for Shelby county about housing resources.

The afternoon panel consisted of Milandria King of the Memphis Fair housing Center, Vanessa Bullock of the Fair Housing Project and Ben Sissman an attorney noted for his pro bono work. Ms. King gave the audience an overview of the Universal Rental landlord Tenant Act and Ms. Bullock covered security deposits and maintenance.

Mr. Sissman seemed to speak extemporaneously. He said that the system costs too much for regular people to participate. It just is not cost-effective to try to hire an attorney to recover deposits. The system is not naturally available to people that need it and would benefit from fair housing issues. In making his point Mr. Sissman said that people should always keep a copy of agreements, mailing communication first-class is acceptable, there is no requirement for Certified mail, and Shelby County almost always accepts a pauper’s oath. Professor Demetria Frank of the University of Memphis Law School was the final speaker for the Conference. She told about how social justice relates to someone’s residence.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Social Security Headache

My experience at the Memphis Social Security Office

By Allison Donald
Before attempting to write this blog I must make a couple of confessions about my own personal journey with Social Security.  First, I tried to do research about this particular subject and still came away with more questions than answers.  Also, I did not realize or maybe even want to admit to myself how much I had become reliant on that money every month and now that it has been taken away I will have to make some difficult choices.
Allison Donald

The Supplemental Security Income program pays benefits to disabled adults and children who have limited income and resources.  SSI benefits also are payable to people 65 and older without disabilities who meet the financial limits.  

People who have worked long enough may also be able to receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or retirement benefits as well as SSI. SSDI is not based on how severe your disability is or how much income you have. Most SSDI recipients receive between $800 and $1,800 per month (the average for 2019 is $1,234). 

As an adult with a disability the question becomes: why do you work?  I mean, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t work then your income is limited to $771 a month. That money is supposed to cover food, clothing, and shelter.  In other words, you have to stick to a stringent budget just to survive.  With most one-bedroom apartments costing over $500 a month, most people who get SSI only have minimal resources for all of life’s necessities.

If you work, the social security administration monitors every asset that you receive.  To remain eligible for Social Security disability benefits, you cannot receive employment income that is greater than the substantial gainful activity (SGA) limit. The SGA limit for 2018 for a non-blind person was $1,180 a month and for a person who is blind it was $1,970. Your income may go up and your benefits will go down. 
Allison Donald speaking to a reporter

Most people who work will at some point have an “over-payment.” That is the term that Social Security uses when they reduce the benefit. It can be a headache, I feel that if most people could afford to live without the benefit, they would tell the government to keep it.  The aggravation is not worth it.

I would like our system to be better.   The way the system is set up now, it seems to encourage people not pursue a better standard of living.  The Social Security System seems to create a cycle of poverty that becomes almost impossible to escape.  

It is such a large and difficult bureaucracy, it is hard to see most people being motivated to get off the system once they have qualified. The risk and anxiety people accept in the system prevents more people from attempting to get off of benefits. 

I left my review with Social Security feeling conflicted.  I was angry and more than a lit bit frustrated, but I am also optimistic about the opportunity that is now in front of me. I have chosen to do without the benefit, so I no longer have constraints on what I can earn each month. But, lose the monetary benefit.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

MCIL: Independent Living at Clovernoonk

MCIL staff is at Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired each Thursday.

Christina Clift
By Christina Clift
It has been almost six months now and I’ve enjoyed every minute of working out in the community.  I work from the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  While not in midtown, the Clovernook Center is close to the old location of the Memphis Center for Independent Living and I knew I’d have the opportunity to see long-time MCIL friends and identify new ones from the old neighborhood. 

At first, it was a bit tough remembering to bring everything I would need from the office with me, but I’ve gotten better at preplanning for Thursdays.  I stay in touch with the other MCIL staff in Clark Tower through e-mail and check voicemails remotely with my phone.  I set up appointments to meet clients at Clovernook and so my days stay busy.  I have a great volunteer working with me as well. Many of you will remember Bryant from our old location; well, he’s not gone but volunteers with me on Thursdays.

MATAplus bus at the Clark Tower

On October 8, 2018 the Memphis Center for Independent Living officially opened our doors at the new home in Clark Tower.  While our office had downsized, the space and amenities had greatly improved.  But the move out east brought other changes to MCIL other than a new address, it brought a shift towards working out in the community.

MCIL staff went from working in individual offices and having a large space for meetings to an open office with shared space and scheduled meeting space.  Needless to say, less privacy and tighter quarters didn’t take me long to begin feeling confining and I couldn’t wait to find a place to work out in the community.  At Clovernook I have my own private meeting space and more freedom.  

It also meant more outreach opportunities and providing another option where people could meet.  Many folks were concerned MCIL moved.  But we choose a location off of the busiest bus route and more central to the entire area. MCIL is obligated to serve all of Shelby County and not just mid-town. The new location could make it easier for people coming in from Millington, Bartlett, Collierville, and Cordova to visit. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The ADAPT Strategy Meeting

ADAPT still focusing on important issues for people with disabilities

By Allison Donald
As I sat in the plane eating my Ritz crackers shaped liked airplanes I was ready for whatever the snow-capped city of Denver had to offer on February 23rd and 24th.  This would be my first ADAPT strategy meeting and I was excited to continue the work that has been done in the workgroups, during of the November action in Denver, and the reintroduction ceremony for the Disability Integration Act both of which I attended.  

At the meeting in Denver,  ADAPTers started forming a circle to discuss the important issues in the Disability Rights movement. I could tell that this meeting was going to be different than any other that I had experienced previously with National ADAPT. 

Dawn Russell of Atlantis ADAPT began the meeting with a recap of the November Action in Denver.  ADAPT was able to get Republican Senator Corey Gardner from Colorado to support the Disability Integration Act.  Senator Gardner’s support was gained because of the tireless efforts of ADAPT.  

The goal is to have the 218 democrats needed in the Senate to get it to the floor, and have it passed by July 24, 2020 which would be two days before the thirtieth anniversary of the passage of the ADA.  In order to make this happen National ADAPT is asking for letters of support from each state’s Medicaid Director as well as letters from the HUD directors.

The Workforce workgroup headed by Cathy Cranston and Susan Stahl highlighted the work that has been using a social media campaign to show real individuals with disabilities who use personal care attendant services. They also spotlight the hard work by the personal care attendants themselves.  

The Workforce workgroup is also actively working to end the intrusive Electronic Visit Verification system.  This system uses the GPS capabilities among other systems to keep track of the people who use the system in order to clock in their personal care attendant.  The EVV system has so many holes, and the biggest one which is affecting whether or not personal attendants receive their correct pay on time.  As a result of that, the Workforce Workgroup is also pushing the Raise IT campaign which would push pay to $15.00 an hour.  In support of all of the causes that the Workforce Workgroup a regional action involving the Texas chapters of ADAPT as well as other chapters may be in the plan for April 4th and 5th

Ending Institutional Bias Workgroup, that is charged with stopping nursing homes and other facilities getting the lion share of funding,  wants to get ahead of the Money Follows the Person legislation.  There is a new version of the bill that will be introduced by Debbie Dingle.  National ADAPT is planning a calendar to promote the stories of individuals who have transitioned out of nursing homes back into the community.  

In concert with this effort the ADAPT Housing committee will be asking that ten thousand more units be dedicated housing for people with disabilities transitioning out of nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.   The housing committee is also urging for the continued education of housing advocates.  Educating the advocates is of particular importance, because investing in housing that is not accessible is not creating homes that are truly affordable more importantly, investing in housing without including access is not creating sustainable housing.

The strategy meeting was a learning experience for me and it underscored how much work has been done.  I do hope I get more opportunities to attend events like this in the future as a representative of Mid-South ADAPT and the Memphis Center for Independent Living.