Civic Engagement for Fair Housing

Outdated: being updated

The Fair Housing Toolkit brings together available resources to help appointed and elected leaders and municipal planning, housing and development officials, developers, citizen board members, and other volunteers understand how to affirmatively further fair housing.    Civic engagement is at the heart of the efforts to create inclusive communities.  Master planning, assessing fair housing, serving limited English individuals, affirmative marketing and increasing accessibility are all efforts that best begin with outreach, first to individuals and families within a municipality and region and also to organizations where diverse populations are represented or served.

This section describes the role of resident involvement in efforts to increase awareness of fair housing at the local level, assist municipalities in defining housing needs, and ensuring fair housing issues and complaints are addressed appropriately.  It presents resources for networking and building local committees along with examples of current efforts from area municipalities.

Why is local activity for fair housing needed?

In the section entitled “Segregation and Integration”, the  Fair Housing and Equity Assessment (FHEA) thoroughly demonstrates racially segregated housing patterns in Greater Boston and describes the extent to which racial and ethnic groups live isolated from interaction with each other.

“… White people live mostly in places where there is little presence of people of color.  The isolation data for the Boston metropolitan area indicates that nearly 83 percent of Whites continue to live only with Whites even though the Black rate of isolation has steadily declined over time.  It also shows growing levels of isolation among Latinos and Asians, likely attributed to the influx of immigrants to the region.  Latino isolation is now equal to that of Blacks.  The reverse of isolation is exposure; the extent to which people of different races and ethnicities live in a place where they are likely to come into contact with one another.  As with the isolation index, the exposure indices indicate that people of color may live near Whites, but Whites live mostly with each other.” ¹

While inclusionary policies and housing development are necessary tools to overcome longstanding patterns of segregation, they must be accompanied by proactive messages of welcome and inclusion at the community level.   Josephine Louie’s report “We Don’t Feel Welcome Here”  found that over half of African Americans and over a third of Hispanics polled in the Metropolitan Boston area believe that “…members of their group ‘very often’ miss out on good housing because they fear that the will not be welcome in a particular community”. ²

¹ MAPC.  Fair Housing and Equity Assessment.   2013.  P 21
² Louie, Josephine.  We Don’t Feel Welcome Here.  2005.   P 1

What are the regulatory requirements for resident involvement?

Beginning with the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 regulations at 24 CFR 570.486, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expressly requires resident participation and public engagement in planning, including the creation of an Analysis of Impediments or an Assessment of Fair Housing  for local and state entities receiving HUD funding. The stated goal of public participation is to provide citizens – especially low and moderate income people affected by the programs – input in the planning, implantation and assessment of programs and projects.   Community Development Block Grant entitlement recipients must create a Citizen Participation Plan, then implement this plan for all other planning processes.

In the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Proposed Rule, HUD restates that municipalities subject to HUD’s requirements must establish a Fair Housing Advisory Council or similar group to advise on housing needs and effective strategies to meet them.

What is the purpose of an Advisory Committee or Commission?

Ongoing civic engagement helps to increase awareness of fair housing at the local level, assist the municipality in defining needs, and insure issues and complaints are addressed.  Involving residents in planning and commission work engages them with municipal government to advocate for causes about which they care passionately. The experiences of research, public hearings, and ongoing service on a commission or committee, help build leadership. Emerging leaders learn the municipal structures available to educate residents as well as how to advocate within local government.

Commission activity assists equity and fair housing in several dimensions:

  • A forum is provided for issues related to protected classes
  • Concerned local residents and those with expertise in the issues at hand advise and strengthen municipal efforts
  • The issue of inclusion is institutionalized within the municipality

How do I start a Fair Housing Advisory Committee/Human Rights Commission in my town or city?

Municipalities may form local committees or commissions or sponsor public awareness campaigns about diversity and inclusion. Often, local interest and committee activity prompts elected officials to pass an ordinance establishing official Commissions for Fair Housing, Human Rights, People with Disabilities, Women and/or Veterans. In other instances, an elected official may appoint a task force to advise fair housing, disability or other related planning processes.   The type of commission (board or committee) can be tailored to fit the municipality.  An ordinance gives permanence for the group’s activity, insulating it from electoral change.

The cities of Somerville and Newton provide examples of active commissions with distinct fair housing efforts.

The City of Somerville’s fair housing ordinance  gives a detailed description of unlawful housing practices according to federal and state law. It establishes the Somerville Fair Housing Commission and its dutiesThe Somerville Human Rights Commission ordinance, passed in the 1990s, specifically excludes fair housing because of the pre-existing Fair Housing Commission created in the 1970s. Somerville has separate commissions such as the Commission for Persons with Disabilities among others.

The Newton Human Relations Commission conducts broad based programming including fair housing activities. Following advocacy from Commissioners and residents, the Mayor created a separate Fair Housing Committee charged with specific efforts related to the City’s Analysis of Impediments, Fair Housing Action Plan, and Accessibility Action Plan.  A separate Commission on Disability advises planning for the City.  The Community Engagement Team works to link city government to local residents.

Smaller municipalities also have success with Human Rights commissions. Melrose and Ashfield are two examples of active commissions primarily led by citizen participation. Particularly in smaller municipalities and municipalities where the current population does not reflect the diversity of Greater Boston, regional networking is required to create an effective advisory board. The same organizations, networks, and resources identified for affirmative marketing can be of assistance to invite participation in the fair housing planning process.

While official commissioners would be required to be residents, these advisors – representatives of ethnic groups, persons with disabilities, current tenants in subsidized housing  – bring first-hand knowledge of needs and effective solutions to guide the Assessment of Fair Housing and related action plan. Professional advocates for all protected class populations additionally strengthen the advisory network with their knowledge and connections.

The U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service’s Avoiding Racial Conflict: A Guide for Municipalities offers succinct descriptions of ordinances, policies, and procedures to institutionalize human rights at the municipal level.

What can our town do to promote diversity and respect?

Below are examples of steps taken by Human Rights Commissions throughout the region:

Education & Outreach

  • Educate local residents about their fair housing rights and responsibilities. Host trainings and provide materials for landlords and tenants, real estate professionals, and municipal staff and volunteers involved in housing, human services, land use, and planning. Provide educational flyers at town hall, on the town website, at municipal events, and in municipal mailings like water bills. Fair housing organizations in the region can help.
  • Create forums. Collaborate with the school district or a local arts council for projects promoting diversity. Invite speakers from area fair housing organizations, researchers, or legal advocates, like events organized by the Winchester Multicultural Network.
  • Embrace and celebrate national and state holidays, showing diversity is welcome: Martin Luther King Day, ethnic holidays and fair housing month. Participate in municipal holiday celebrations such as the Memorial Day parade or have a booth at local events and festivals, like efforts by the World in Watertown.
  • Reach out with media. Write a monthly op-ed column for the local newspaper and/or letters to the editor supporting efforts to promote housing access. Human Rights Commissioners in Melrose do this monthly.



  • Influence key policy makers and other boards: assign members to planning, zoning committees, town meeting, other policy making groups. Collaborate with other municipal entities that address housing issues – the affordable housing partnership committee, housing trust fund, community preservation act board – to advocate for policies that affirmatively further fair housing.
  • Proactively review proposed policies and programs to ensure that they foster access and equal opportunity for all persons. HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Proposed Rule elaborates on the need for resident involvement in the fair housing planning process. This can prevent legal action against the municipality.

Who is doing work like this in Greater Boston?

As part of the Sustainable Communities Initiative, MAPC staff conducted extensive outreach to engage local residents in the planning process. MAPC is in the process of documenting strategies and lessons learned from the initiative and will post the results on its web pages.

The Massachusetts Association of Human Rights and Relations Commissions (MAHRC) is an organization of municipal and local agencies responsible for promoting human and civil rights and harmonious relationships among diverse groups at a local level.  MAHRC promotes networking initiatives, developing educational strategies and model programs and services as a resource for new and existing human rights and relations commissions.

The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston lists suggested activities for local commissions and for individuals interested in promoting fair housing locally. Staff and board members provide training on the housing discrimination complaint process as well as programming to engage local residents in constructive dialogue about Race and Place.

Faith based organizations are effective arenas for discussion, leadership and action regarding inclusion. Among the most prominent in the region are the Black Ministerial Alliance, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the Islamic Society of Boston, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. While not focused particularly on housing, each provides an arena for local engagement.


Regional social justice organizations like JALSA, ACLU, GLAD, NAACP, and area Independent Living Centers have in depth experience with developing local coalitions to respond to hate incidents.  Resources from the National Fair Housing Alliance, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Leadership Conference for Civil Rights can support local efforts.