After spirited debate and a narrow vote, Charleston City Council took the first step Tuesday toward giving the city a direct role in handling housing discrimination complaints, a process now handled by a state commission.
If approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and funded by the city and federal governments, Charleston could create a new office to handle and investigate complaints, along with a court system to adjudicate complaints that could not be settled.
City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, former director of HUD's Columbia office, led the push for the measure.
He pointed out that a 2007 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the Charleston metropolitan area had the largest gap in the country between the interest rates charged to whites and minorities for mortgage loans, regardless of the income of the borrower.
"I think it's time for us, as a city, to take action," said Gregorie, who also raised the issue while running for mayor in 2007.
There was disagreement between Gregorie and his former opponent, Mayor Joe Riley, about whether a city-run fair housing office would have any authority to examine lending disparities, as opposed to discrimination complaints based on race, gender, family status or disability.
Riley argued against Gregorie's City of Charleston Fair Housing Act, saying that the state already investigates housing discrimination claims, and Gregorie's plan would duplicate that effort at perhaps considerable cost to the city, which would divert resources from programs such as creating affordable housing.
Department of Housing and Community Development Director Geona Johnson said the city has increased funding to the Trident Urban League to educate residents about housing discrimination and help resolve problems.
Gregorie and other council members, particularly James Lewis and Jimmy Gallant, said the city should take a larger role in housing issues, and said the administration's estimates of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual costs were exaggerated.
Councilman Louis Waring said it was the most meaningful discussion about housing issues he had heard since joining City Council in 1994.
Riley was joined by council members Kathleen Wilson, Dean Riegel, Gary White and Blake Hallman in opposing the fair housing ordinance. They were outvoted 8-5 by Gregorie, Lewis, Gallant, Waring, Robert Mitchell, Tim Mallard, Aubry Alexander and Mike Seekings. Seekings earlier had joined Riley and the other opponents in a 6-7 vote to table the issue.
What happens next is, the ordinance will return to City Council on May 11 for a final vote. If the ordinance is ratified, the city would ask HUD to review the ordinance, and see if HUD would agree to help finance the formation of a city fair housing office.