A Jacksonville state representative’s bill aimed at easing the burden on victims of housing discrimination who are pursuing civil action passed unanimously in its first committee stop this week.
The Florida Commission on Human Relations was founded by the state legislature in 1969 to enforce the state’s civil rights laws. The commission investigates discrimination complaints under the Florida Fair Housing Act of 1983, the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 and the Whistle-Blower’s Act of 1999. The Commission is certified and funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Since its inception, the Commission has investigated and closed more than 74,000 cases, negotiating about $13 million dollars in settlements for more than 1,500 Floridians in the process.
The Florida Fair Housing Act (FFHA), which is modeled after the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), essentially prohibits anyone from refusing to sell or rent a residence to someone because of their “race, color, national origin, sex, handicap, familial status or religion.”
“Recent state court judicial decisions interpreting the Florida Fair Housing Act have held that a person must first exhaust his or her administrative remedies before pursuing a civil action under the Florida Fair Housing Act,” Democratic Rep. Tracie Davis told members of the Civil Justice Subcommittee Wednesday, explaining her bill, HB 565. “HB 565 will simply amend the Florida Fair Housing Act to provide that a person harmed or aggrieved by a discriminatory housing practice is not required to exhaust his or her administrative remedies prior to bringing a civil action under the Florida Federal Housing Act.”
Since 2008, HUD has been telling the Commission that the state’s judicial interpretation of the FFHA requiring the exhaustion of administrative remedies makes the state law inconsistent with federal law, which allows victims to bring a civil action whether or not a complaint has been filed with HUD.
HB 565 would make the FFHA equivalent to the federal FHA, making it possible for anyone who claims to be a victim of housing discrimination to file a civil action at any time, whether or not a complaint has been filed with the Commission.
The bill would also allow the Commission to retain its fair housing certification. It would prohibit individuals from filing a civil case if an agreement under the FFHA has been reached and approved by the Commission and it would also prohibit an individual from filing a civil case once an administrative hearing has begun.
According to a House staff analysis of the bill, the state could lose about $850,000 in annual federal funding if the legislation doesn’t pass. Otherwise, the bill doesn’t appear to have a fiscal impact on state or local governments.
“This bill is not new to us. It was actually passed off the floor last year, 111 votes to 114,” Rep. Davis said. “So again, not new legislation, we just need it to get through so our Commission is not suspended.”