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Should NH update its Fair Housing Law for federal funding?

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While many Granite State homebuyers and renters are being priced out of the market, some face a more surreptitious barrier to housing: discrimination.

In March the New Hampshire Senate voted unanimously to revise the state Fair Housing Law through SB 126. The bill is intended to win federal funding for housing discrimination investigations. However, SB 126 could meet resistance in the state House of Representatives, where some legislators look suspiciously on federal government ties.

A proposal to revise housing laws

SB 126 is a combination of three different proposals related to housing. First, the bill revises the circumstances under which a tenant can stop eviction by paying overdue rent. Second, the bill enables rental assistance prior to an eviction notice. Lastly, the bill rewrites New Hampshire’s Fair Housing Law.

New Hampshire’s Fair Housing Law generally prohibits discrimination in renting and real estate transactions. For example, it is illegal under the Fair Housing Law to say “white women only” on a rental advertisement. The law also prohibits more subtle forms of discrimination, such as a landlord only showing one building to renters with children and one building to single adults.

New Hampshire most recently revised its Fair Housing Law in 2018, to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. The law also prohibits discrimination based on age, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, marital status, familial status, disability, or national origin.

SB 126 does not change the substance of the state’s Fair Housing Law, but it adds some new language. For example, the bill specifically prohibits various activities that support “blockbusting”: scaring homeowners into selling cheap based on claims that an undesirable minority group is moving into the neighborhood.

SB 126 still includes many exemptions in the Fair Housing Law. For example, the Fair Housing Law does not apply to someone renting out a room in his or her primary residence. There are also exemptions to allow housing specifically for older persons or for people of a specific religion.

Arguments for a federal match

The New Hampshire Human Rights Commission requested the language in SB 126 to roughly match state and federal fair housing laws. If state law is “substantially equivalent” to the federal Fair Housing Act, the Human Rights Commission is eligible for funding from the Fair Housing Assistance Program. In other words, the Human Rights Commission could get federal funding for the work it already does investigating housing discrimination.

Roughly half of states – including every other state in New England – participate in the federal Fair Housing Assistance Program.

The New Hampshire Human Rights Commission already has a similar workshare agreement with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC reimburses the Human Rights Commission for employment discrimination cases.

Arguments against housing law changes

No one testified against SB 126 before the Senate Commerce committee, but past attempts to update the state’s Fair Housing Law have met resistance.

For example, the Senate killed HB 1143 in 2014 when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expressed concern over whether some of the language would match federal law.

Then-state representative Joseph Hagan wrote, “this bill is an additional surrender of sovereignty to the federal government in exchange for a not guaranteed transfer of federal funding.”

The scope of housing discrimination in New Hampshire

In the past decade the Human Rights Commission has filed somewhere less than a dozen housing discrimination charges each year. Many more New Hampshire housing discrimination cases are filed each year at the federal level, instead, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – as many as 78 in 2005. In a fiscal note for SB 126, the state Human Rights Commission said the bill could lead to more housing discrimination charges being filed at the state level. That would mean more work and costs for the commission along with the opportunity for federal reimbursement.

What’s next for SB 126?

SB 126 passed the Senate in March. The bill next has a public hearing on May 4, before the House Judiciary Committee, at 9:30am. If you are interested in sharing your opinion on SB 126, check out our tutorial on how to testify at a virtual bill hearing.

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