WASHINGTON (AP) - President-elect Barack Obama is being urged to strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws to ensure that the mortgage foreclosure crisis doesn't disproportionately hit minorities and the poor.
A bipartisan commission pointed Tuesday to waning prosecutions of fair housing complaints, particularly under the Bush administration.
"The system doesn't work," former Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros said at a news briefing on the 85-page report prepared by the commission, which was co-chaired by Cisneros and former HUD secretary Jack Kemp.
Cisneros said stronger HUD enforcement is needed in the interim until a separate agency can be created, saying, "This is the only way to address serious problems of housing segregation and discrimination that led us to our current foreclosure crisis."
Ultimately, the panel said Congress and the Obama administration must create an independent agency that would be free of inherent conflicts of interest at HUD.
As it stands, HUD is in the awkward position of suing financial lenders it also depends on to administer housing programs.
In its six-month investigation, the commission said a discriminatory lack of lending by financial institutions in lower-income neighborhood communities opened the door for high-cost lenders to set up shop, resulting in "steering" of subprime lending toward minorities and the poor that later forced them to default.
The commission says more than 4 million cases of housing discrimination occur each year, yet fewer than 30,000 complaints are filed to HUD. Of those, the number of cases prosecuted have steadily declined from 88 in 2001 to 31 in 2007. In 1995, HUD prosecutions numbered 125 - higher than recent years but still a fraction of total complaints.
HUD delays in investigating fair housing complaints also have grown, currently averaging 502 days.
Citing in part a "lack of leadership" in the last eight years, Cisneros, who served under President Bill Clinton, said Obama's transition team had responded "very positively" to the commission's findings and recommendations. Obama earlier this week expressed impatience with Bush's response to the foreclosure crisis.
"I expect an open hearing from the top people in the administration when they're named, including the HUD secretary and the president-elect," Cisneros said.
Kemp, a Republican who served under President George H.W. Bush, said in a statement that the federal government needs to return to the business of "getting things done." He did not appear at the news briefing, citing health difficulties.
_Revive the President's Fair Housing Council, which has met only once in recent years, to promote coordination of housing enforcement with HUD, the Justice Department, bank regulatory agencies and housing groups.
_Create a five-year HUD multimedia program aimed at educating people about their fair housing rights.
The panel's other members include Pat Combs, a former president of the National Association of Realtors; Okianer Christian Dark, associate dean at Howard University School of Law; I. King Jordan, president-emeritus of Gallaudet University; Myron Orfield, law professor at the University of Minnesota; and Gordon Quan, former mayor pro tem of Houston.