I am amazed, in awe, and inspired by the way many nonprofit leaders – many of whom are women – are leading their organizations through the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. So much so, that I’ve decided to do a special series about Small Business and Nonprofit Executive Women who are living in the trenches, working to keep their nonprofit running, and doing critical work to continue to serve individuals and families during this crisis. I’m curious about their work and the people they’re serving, their biggest concerns, and how they are taking care of themselves and those around them. So, I asked!
Amy Nelson, Executive Director, Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana (FHCCI)
Amy has worked in fair housing nonprofit organizations since 1997 and began as the first Executive Director of the FHCCI in October 2011. As the Executive Director of the Fair Housing of the Dakotas (FHD) serving North and South Dakota, she dealt with a number of groundbreaking cases addressing housing discrimination against those with disabilities and families with children, and sexual harassment against women. She then worked as the Director of Systemic Investigations and Enforcement at Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) of Richmond, VA, which served the Commonwealth of Virginia. There, she focused primarily on addressing systemic lending discrimination against minorities, rental discrimination against those with disabilities, and discriminatory advertising. Prior to her work in fair housing, she worked in nonprofit management in Washington, DC, and with the Cargill-Nutrena Feeds Division (Indiana and Minnesota locations).
Q. Who are you serving and how are you serving them during this crisis?
A. The mission of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana (FHCCI) is to ensure equal housing opportunities by eliminating housing discrimination through advocacy, enforcement, education, and outreach. We are a small nonprofit made up of five full-time employees covering a service area of 24 counties in central Indiana. We are the only such nonprofit working exclusively on fair housing issues in Indiana. The FHCCI has four main programs: Advocacy, Education, Inclusive Communities, and Public Policy where we work to address our mission.
Who we are serving has not changed during the COVID-19 crisis except that more people are making contact related to COVID-19-related housing concerns. In 2019, the FHCCI documented contact from 865 individuals with housing-related concerns, including housing discrimination. Typically, the time period of November to about March is slower for contact because people are not moving, so not having as many housing concerns. However, COVID-19 has raised increased housing concerns. Already to date in 2020, we have received contact from 294 individuals with housing concerns, far above the typical monthly average for our “slow” period. The concerns range from eviction, lack of ability to pay rent due to job loss, utility turn off, and issues around lack of emergency maintenance.
Q. Have you added, changed, or deleted any services because of COVID-19?
A. The FHCCI is doing its very best to continue to answer people’s questions, make referrals, and conduct investigations of housing discrimination. Our in-person meetings and answering questions have transitioned to phone calls and emails. We are also rethinking how we conduct some types of fair housing investigations due to in-person restrictions.
Under our Education program, we typically host an annual fair housing conference, which was scheduled for early April to celebrate Fair Housing Month. We postponed that conference to late July. Other speaking events have been cancelled or postponed. We are currently evaluating how we can reach people through webinars to continue to conduct much needed training as we continue to educate people on their rights and housing providers on their responsibilities. However, Indiana’s broadband issues raise concerns about our ability to reach people in rural areas like our in-person training we’re able to do – especially if this crisis stretches for longer than any of us can currently imagine.
Q. What are your biggest concerns right now?
A. One of my biggest concerns is people being evicted through no fault of their own. So many people have lost jobs and do not have the ability to pay their rent. We appreciate Governor’s Holcomb’s executive order banning evictions and foreclosures while the emergency order is in effect. However, during that time period, people are still responsible for payment of their rent and mortgages. If you no longer have a job, how are you to pay your rent or mortgage? Many of the people contacting us don’t have the ability to pay their rent once the order is lifted. Landlords will need to be flexible in allowing for payment plans for people to pay the outstanding balance – that’s assuming those people are back to work and can start making payments again. I greatly fear that there will be a massive amount of evictions filed once the emergency order is lifted.
The FHCCI also appreciates the passage of the stimulus package and the expansion of unemployment benefits. The expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus package will certainly help many Hoosiers. But the reality is that the stimulus payments that are going to be made – at a max of $1,200 per person is probably only going to cover rent expenses alone for most people – let alone all their other monthly expenses. It is clear that those most at-risk of homelessness or eviction will need more direct payments to assist them if the COVID-19 crisis keeps businesses closed and people out of work for extended periods of time. We have been hearing that some lenders are already exploring loan modifications to allow people to defer mortgage payments; however, the foreclosure crisis of 2008 showed us that unless there are federal regulations in this area, and a robust housing counseling program, not all lenders will participate or follow requirements. Monitoring will need to occur, and notification of people’s rights greatly expanded.
Another concern that we have – that has been raised by our colleagues in other states – is increased levels of discrimination against Asian Americans. Race, color, national origin, and disability are some of the groups protected from discrimination under fair housing laws.
Q. How are you taking care of yourself, your staff, and your clients?
A. As the Executive Director of the FHCCI, my biggest worry is my staff. They are not alone in the incredible mental toll this is taking on so many. Like others, they are having to juggle working from home, conducting e-learning with at-home children, worries about friends and family, and their own personal health worries. Although we are fortunate to be able to work from home, the personal demands are prevalent upon those working in a new and different way. I have tried to be as flexible as I can to ensure our staff can take breaks and we are doing our best to meet the demands of those we serve. We are also doing more FHCCI team Zoom meetings so we can see each other and stay in contact.
Q. What is your biggest need right now and how can people support your organization?
A. We continue to need testers (secret shoppers) to help us in determining if housing discrimination is occurring. Testers are paid a stipend for their time and reimbursed their costs. Schedules can be flexible based upon the tests we need conducted and when the person can test. Information can be found on our jobs page.
Q. What are you reading, watching, listening to, or doing to get through this?
A. I have been trying to turn off the news and listen to music. Lots of walks with my rescue pup have also helped tremendously.