Fair housing advocate says concept has grown

CHAMPAIGN — Fred Underwood was a community organizer in Chicago before Barack Obama was.

Underwood worked on the city's southwest side in the 1970s and early '80s and saw how discrimination damaged people's sense of well-being.

He ended up making fair housing the focus of his career. For the last 22 years, he has been director of diversity for the National Association of Realtors.

Visiting Champaign-Urbana on Thursday, Underwood said the concept of fair housing has broadened in the last few decades.

Today, it addresses not only discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion and national origin, but also discrimination against those with disabilities and those with children.

Some places also bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and income source.

The demographic makeup of the market has also changed in recent decades, Underwood said.

In the fourth quarter of 2011, half of all first-time home buyers were Latino, he said.

Over the next 20 years, three-quarters of new households being formed are projected to be Latino, Asian-American or African-American.

"The environment has changed," Underwood said.

Some companies recognize that and are actively marketing to diverse populations, while others aren't, he said.

Meanwhile, more minority-group members have entered the real estate profession, realizing their understanding of other cultures and languages can give them an edge in business.

In years to come, Underwood said, he expects to see more fair-housing complaints from people with disabilities.

Among the complaints: landlords' refusal to accommodate guide dogs and other service animals.

The complaints will come not only from people with vision problems, but also from those with hearing impairments and emotional disabilities, he said.

Some landlords may not want to lease to people with animals, but Underwood said they must do so unless the animal is destructive or dangerous to others.

Other complaints may concern the need for wider doors to accommodate wheelchairs or the need for nearby parking spaces.

Although property owners may not want to make modifications, they need to do so if the request is reasonable, he said.

Underwood said if people encounter a case of possible discrimination, they should first ask more questions to make sure they didn't misunderstand the situation.

If someone tells them something that sounds discriminatory — say, that children aren't allowed — they should challenge the assertion.

The next step, he said, is to contact local human relations departments, the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Underwood said real estate professionals sometimes think they're being helpful by putting themselves in the buyer's shoes and considering what they would want in that situation.

But that's where they get in trouble, he said.

"You're not finding a house for yourself," he said. "It's not what you want. It's what the buyer wants."

While in Champaign-Urbana, Underwood discussed fair housing at a midday meeting of the Champaign County Association of Realtors.

He also visited his parents, Richard and Carol Underwood, who live in Urbana. The Underwoods were once educational missionaries in South Korea, and Fred Underwood lived in that country from age 3 to age 18.

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