Our guest blogger today is Sylvia Berry, Director, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, HUD’s Richmond Field Office
The rain came down in buckets as we drove on the interstate in anticipation of meeting with Margaret and staff from the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Although it was a dreary summer morning, I was thinking that the sun must be shining in Margaret’s new home.
I, along with Tonja Jackson, Equal Opportunity Specialist and Jasmine D. Benford, Summer Intern, traveled more than two hours to ensure that justice was served for Margaret McNeil, a double amputee who lived in what she called a “prison” for two years. Upon learning of Margaret’s living situation earlier this year, Tonja immediately went to work on having Margaret transferred to housing that would accommodate her disability, explaining her living situation in an inaccessible home was too egregious to continue. After a long investigation of discrimination based on disability, we finally went to see the results of Margaret’s Voluntary Compliance Agreement (VCA). A VCA is an agreement between the agency and HUD to correct all deficiencies and violations discovered during an investigation or monitoring. The agency agrees to come into compliance with the civil rights requirements. In this case, the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority provided accessible housing for Margaret and compensated her for the two years she spent in her inaccessible unit. She was presented with a check in the amount of $21,984.00 with two future years of rent abatement through the settlement.
When we arrived, Margaret was sitting in her new family room with a smile that was contagious. Margaret took us around her new home, showing us all of the accessible features. She led us happily as we followed and took pictures of the brand new accessible space. Touring Margaret’s new home reminded me of my role when the case first came to HUD.
While conducting a fair housing presentation for the Mid-Atlantic Affordable Housing Management Association in October 2010, I received a question from the audience regarding reasonable accommodation. As it turns out, the person asking the question was Margaret’s daughter. After she explained the situation, I advised the daughter that her mother could file a fair housing complaint.
Margaret filed a complaint, saying that the home she had once loved had become a prison. For two years, she carried the burden of asking for help from others. Margaret was being transported up and down the stairs by her two young grandchildren who were living with her because their mother had passed away. For two years, she had little or no access to the outside without the assistance of family or a stranger passing by on the street. For two years, she missed cookouts, plays, church events, bingo, shopping and even the simple pleasure of going outside and smelling the fresh air. She could not cook on the stove, shower in her own tub, change her clothes or enter her bedroom. She said she had lost her dignity, and her plea tore at my heart. I knew we had to do something and do it right away. Upon receiving the settlement check with trembling hands and teary eyes, Margaret stated, “I owe so much to my God and HUD. If it were not for HUD, I do not know what I would have done.”
Margaret received more than an accessible unit and a monetary check; she received freedom, basic liberties, equality and, most of all, her self-respect. As a HUD employee, I feel more than valued. What we accomplished solidifies the mission and vision of HUD. My job touches the very fabric of what it means to be an American citizen and to serve my country. That day was one of the best of my life and I will treasure it always.