Recently, two of the most significant federal policies enacted to promote equity have been in the news. The Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA and the Fair Housing Act have both been the subject of extensive media attention as of late. Since both of these address aspects of Civil Rights and affect our conduct here in Roanoke, I thought it appropriate to feature them in this week’s post.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA was passed by Congress and signed into law by then President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Further, the Act imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations. Celebrating its 30th anniversary last week, at the time of its passage the ADA was viewed as the most significant piece of anti-discrimination legislation since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Among its achievements, the Act has literally changed the built environment- ramps, Braille signage, levers instead of doorknobs, wider passageways and so on are all legacies of the Act designed to enhance accessibility. Technological changes such as closed captioning, web accessibility, and audible signals at crosswalks are but a few additional examples. No longer are people excluded the opportunity to earn professional licenses or secure their education due to a disability. No longer are people denied employment based solely upon a disability. Still, there remains much to be accomplished to secure real equity. Much of what has been gained through the ADA has only been gained through litigation or mandates issued by the Federal government. Still, those with disabilities remain viewed as individuals “needing accommodation” rather than assets to an institution or organization. As in so many cases with civil rights and equity, laws can help ensure discrimination does not occur but real change relies upon cultural change.
The Roanoke Experience
Here in Roanoke we address the ADA through capital improvements such as curb ramps and wider sidewalks and through compliance in key areas such as building regulations and transit. The City has an appointed ADA Coordinator to address complaints or grievances related to compliance with the Act. In just a few weeks, the City will see its second barrier-free playground dedicated adjacent to the Melrose Library (a gift of the local Kiwanis Club in honor of their 100th anniversary). Even with these actions, we recognize more work remains - too many facilities remain challenging for those with disabilities to use, too many sidewalks remain difficult to navigate and too many still struggle with securing rewarding and meaningful employment. After 30 years, we should all work even harder to make accessibility more than just compliance with a law.
The Fair Housing Act passed by Congress in 1968 and signed into law by then President Lyndon Johnson is actually a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, a successor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act prohibits discrimination in housing based upon race, color, religion, or national origin (later amended to include gender). Broadly, this addresses the sale or rent of houses, the marketing or properties and access to services and amenities. In 2015, the rules used to implement the Act were amended by then President Barack Obama’s Housing and Urban Development Agency to affirmatively address segregation in housing within a community - requiring communities receiving federal housing funds to develop plans to address housing segregation.
Last week, at the direction of President Trump, HUD removed this rule arguing it best to allow decisions regarding locations of affordable housing be left up to localities. While local control of zoning matters is essential and generally something worth advocating for, it is best when set within the context of national housing policy. Without such policies and the type of requirements promoted by the Affirmatively Promoting Fair Housing rule, it is far too easy for affluent suburbs to continue to reject any form of affordable housing and far too easy for communities to continue to engage in exclusionary zoning, both of which have the very real consequence of continuing to limit the integration of affordable housing in the neighborhoods that represent the greatest opportunities for residents.
The Roanoke Experience
While not perfect we are fortunate that nearly all of the neighborhoods in Roanoke, even the most affluent with the most highly regarded schools, accommodate a variety of affordable housing. Apartment buildings, accessory dwelling units, mixed use buildings and affordable single family homes are found in nearly all our neighborhoods.
Roanoke promotes fair housing in part through its approach to land use planning and zoning and also through a Fair Housing Ordinance, most recently updated in 2007, all of which are supported by the Planning Commission and a Fair Housing Board.
I am confident that as we continue as a community to advance on objectives associated with equity and empowerment, further positive steps will be taken in each of these critical policy areas - in most cases, beyond that promoted or prescribed through Federal Policy and more often because it is the right thing to do.
— Bob Cowell