Thursday, October 10, 2002

A 'tough and gutsy' advocate for fair housing

Karla Irvine praised by those she's helped, respected by those she's battled

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

She's a 69-year-old grandmother with arthritis flare-ups and a smoker's cough. But don't let that fool you. Karla Irvine is tough.

Ask lawyers, landlords and Realtors about the executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), a Walnut Hills-based non-profit agency that enforces fair-housing laws and pushes for integrated communities.

[photo] Karla Irvine in her Walnut Hills office.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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“She will grab onto your leg and bite it until you say uncle,” says Jeffrey Greenberger, legal counsel for the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Apartment Association.

“When you're a landlord in Cincinnati, you're always in awe and fear of her,” says Jim Cohen, past president of the apartment association.

“Nobody is going to describe Karla as warm and fuzzy. Karla is tough and gutsy,” says Tim Burke, a lawyer whose firm frequently represents HOME.

In the 25 years since she took the helm of HOME, Ms. Irvine has always viewed herself as a soldier in a larger war against racial injustice. Since the April 2001 riots, housing has become a priority in a city that continues to struggle with population loss, lack of affordable, quality units for low-income residents, resistance to subsidized housing and neighborhoods largely segregated by race.

In working to change Cincinnati's housing landscape, Ms. Irvine has established HOME as a model program nationally. The agency trains housing providers to do their jobs the right way, assists people in moving out of poverty, and doesn't flinch when suing large insurance companies, real estate firms and landlords big and small.

“Karla is viewed as one of the leading experts in fair housing and mobility programs for low-income persons,” says Mary Davis, chair of the board of the Chicago-based National Fair Housing Alliance, an umbrella group for private, non-profit groups such as HOME. “Karla,” she adds, “is a force to be reckoned with.”

The lawyers and landlords won't argue. But even as they talk about her toughness, many say she has earned their respect.

Says Mr. Greenberger: “No one has firmer convictions about fair housing than Karla. (But) she's not a fanatic. She's reasonable. She's not going to make a 90-year-old couple who own a duplex go into bankruptcy if they see the error of their ways and correct it.”

To Ms. Irvine, it's all so simple: Treat everyone the same. Failure to do so — especially when it comes to matters of race — will incur her wrath.


She's not rude but doesn't go out of her way to be friendly, especially during a first meeting. And then there's that dour expression. “My face is set not to smile,” she explains. “But I do.” Rarely. She's not smiling when she walks into HOME's July board meeting.

She's dressed casually, as usual. Gray top, denim skirt, sandals. Her gray hair is short, straight, bluntly cut. Before and after the meeting there's a minimum of chitchat with the 13 board members who are present.

Ms. Irvine
Ms. Irvine
Occupation: Executive director, Housing Opportunities Made Equal.
Born: May 25, 1933, Boston.
Home: North Avondale
Family: Her husband, Peter, died in 1976. A daughter, Celia Irvine, is married with two children and is a lawyer with Legal Aid in the Bronx
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, Swarthmore College, 1955; master's in political science, Columbia University, 1963; doctorate in political science, University of Cincinnati, 1973
Civic activities: Board member, Cincinnati chapter of NAACP; board, Greater Cincinnati Housing Alliance; board, Cincinnatus; vice president, Greater Cincinnati Mortgage Counseling Center.
“Crotchety,” is how board member Robert L. Harris of the National Conference for Community and Justice describes Ms. Irvine, “but with a gentle heart.”

In a low, breathy voice, she informs the board that HOME has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an African-American couple who tried to buy a house in Aberdeen, Ohio, in Brown County. The couple came to HOME after being told of deed restrictions, one of which said the property could be sold only to Caucasians.

She then describes another case involving a Fairfield landlord. Through testing — sending black and white prospective renters to the landlord to see if they're treated differently — HOME has found a pattern of discrimination, she says. The landlord has been given the option of resolving the case through mediation, but if he refuses, HOME should sue, Ms. Irvine says. In a voice vote, the board unanimously agrees.

“I like getting a perfect complaint,” Ms. Irvine says later. “The one where a complainant is totally credible, the testing backs up everything he or she said, and it's a big target.”

Sibcy Cline was a big target — the No. 2 realty firm in Greater Cincinnati — when HOME sued in 1985, saying the firm steered black home buyers to black and integrated neighborhoods and white prospects to white neighborhoods. The firm, while denying wrongdoing, settled with HOME two years later and agreed to implement an equal housing opportunity manual and to pay the agency to test its compliance for three years.

Another big case arose four years ago when HOME and the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP sued Nationwide Insurance, accusing the company of refusing to insure property in several low-income, mostly African-American neighborhoods. Intense settlement negotiations followed as Nationwide brought in lawyers from Chicago, St. Louis, Washington D.C. and Columbus.

It's safe to say Ms. Irvine, who participated in those sessions, wasn't smiling much then, either.

“She was never intimidated by anybody,” says Marjorie Corman Aaron, a University of Cincinnati law professor who mediated the settlement. “She was a very tough, very forceful and effective negotiator. Her stance and her presence and her negotiating skills, in my view, ended up getting her (side) more than they might have otherwise gotten. I came away with great admiration and respect (for her).”

“She's not afraid to go to war,” says Mr. Burke, one of the lawyers representing HOME in the Nationwide case. “But she also recognizes the huge advantage that can come from solving problems.” Which is to say, the vast majority of suits filed by HOME are settled out of court.

“Even in settlements, she is always pushing (for concessions),” he says. “She and I have had numerous arguments where I would (say) that she's pushing too hard. But she's always trying to improve things.”

That was evident in the 1999 Nationwide settlement. At the urging of Ms. Irvine and others, the company agreed, among other things, to pay HOME and the NAACP $750,000 to set up the American Dream Account in which eligible participants receive money for mortgage down payments. In the past three months, 15 families in the program have closed on houses, Ms. Irvine says, and she expects the total to reach 300. She sees it as a way to boost Cincinnati's home ownership rate among African-Americans, which is just 26 percent.

The Nationwide and Sibcy Cline cases demonstrated a key to Ms. Irvine's success: Sue not just to get damages on behalf of individuals, but to make broad changes in how companies do business.

“I love litigation, getting a case together,” she says. And yet, “I've gotten a little sour on what systemic things it can accomplish.” She sued nine Mariemont property owners in 1995, and in the resulting settlement they agreed to rent to Section 8 families — low-income people who receive federal money to help pay rent. But, “the suit's come to an end, and I suspect the integration has come to an end, so I think, what did I accomplish?”

In fact, enforcing fair housing laws — which includes training and education programs for apartment owners and real estate agents — is only part of what HOME tries to accomplish with its 14-person staff and annual budget of nearly $900,000. (Funding comes from the city of Cincinnati, United Way, and other government sources.) The agency's mission statement says the goal is to “eliminate illegal discrimination in housing, especially racial discrimination, and to promote balanced living patterns.”

For years, Ms. Irvine has railed against the imbalances caused by clumping low-income housing in poor neighborhoods.

“We've learned it's a disaster,” she says. “It brings vulnerable people into one area so the devious forces of drugs, etc., can prey upon them. It shuts people off from job opportunities, possibly educational opportunities. It's horrible.”

Since 1982, HOME's mobility program has assisted Section 8 families in finding housing in non-poverty neighborhoods. Last year, 98 families moved out of high-poverty areas. The program also helps people find jobs.

In the same vein, Ms. Irvine lobbied for the “impaction” ordinance that Cincinnati council passed last year. It sets limits on new low-income units in neighborhoods already saturated with subsidized housing. And she's preparing a push for an “inclusion” ordinance that would require large developments to set aside 20 percent of units for people with Section 8 vouchers.

But that's only a partial solution, she says, because it would impact only the city.

“My big concern is: How are we going to get a fair-share plan for the region, where every (housing) development has 10 percent to 20 percent (of units) set aside for affordable, low-income housing? I've battered my head against the wall, and so have people on my staff. It's one of those intractable regional issues.”

And it's a tough sell in the suburbs, where residents worry that such developments will decrease property values.

“The places that have inclusionary zoning haven't had that problem,” she says. “But how can I tell the suburbs that?”

It's ironic, says Ms. Irvine's 34-year-old daughter, Celia Irvine, that her mother, who never had any desire to live in suburbia, has spent a lifetime trying to make those areas accessible to others.


In North Avondale, an integrated community with a black-white ratio of about 60-40, it's a long walk up concrete steps to Ms. Irvine's home away from HOME. She and her husband moved into the brick and stucco house in 1968, the year the federal Fair Housing Act was enacted.

Inside, bookshelves are nearly overflowing. “You marry an English teacher, you get a lot of books,” she says, ensconced in a chair in the living room. “And besides, I read all the time. I'm a junk reader.” Spy stories, thrillers and mysteries break up the monotony of the bureaucratic prose that crosses her desk. “But I can't stand bad writing, so the junk books I have are well written.”

No doubt she learned something about writing from her parents, both of whom wrote for newspapers. Ms. Irvine was born in Boston, but the family moved several times as her father, Karl Schriftgiesser changed jobs, from editorial writer for the Washington Post, to drama critic for the New York Times, to books editor for Newsweek.

She attended Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school in suburban Philadelphia that emphasizes social responsibility. Freshmen were required to read Gunnar Myrdal's influential 1944 book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, which documented social and economic conditions and other issues related to racism.

“That had a big impact on me,” Ms. Irvine says.

She and her husband, Peter, moved to Cincinnati in 1964 when he got a job teaching at the University of Cincinnati. After earning a doctorate in political science, she taught part-time at UC, the College of Mount St. Joseph and Xavier University, then took a job with the North Avondale Neighborhood Association, putting out a newsletter and organizing tenants who were battling slumlords.

Her world changed in 1976 when her husband died of lung cancer at age 44. Suddenly, Ms. Irvine was a single mother with an 8-year-old. She needed a more substantial income. Within a year, the HOME job came open, and she applied.

It seemed a good match for the transplanted East Coast liberal. Still, she was quite naive, she admits.

“I didn't know the extent of racism. The first six months was an eye-opener for me. We'd send white and black testers out and they had totally different experiences. I began to see how pervasive the problem was.”

Those early years were rocky in other ways. In 1981 some members of HOME's board attempted to oust her, accusing her of running a one-woman regime, committing the agency to positions without consulting the board and failing to keep them informed. She survived; eight board members resigned. Ms. Irvine says they had become uncomfortable when she began advocating for low-income housing in areas where there wasn't any.

Relations with landlords and Realtors also were strained, particularly early in her tenure.

“There was a period there when the impression was, Karla would sue landlords for sport,” says Mr. Cohen, the former apartment association president, now vice president of CMC Properties. “I certainly know differently. (But) it was very, very adversarial.”

Says John Cobey, a lawyer who often represents clients accused of violating fair housing laws: “She has transformed HOME from an angry organization into an effective organization (that brings) harmony in our community.”

It's not that HOME has become a kinder, gentler agency. But Realtors and landlords have found that it's better to work with Ms. Irvine than to exclude or ignore her. Mr. Cohen, for one, sought and was granted a seat on HOME's board.

Ms. Irvine also has built bridges. A few years ago she suggested creating a mediation program for clients, as an alternative to filing lawsuits. The program that evolved — the Fair Housing Mediation Service — is co-sponsored by HOME and the apartment association, with three members from each group serving on its board.

“Trust is being built (between HOME and landlords) because people are learning that people are keeping their word,” says Harriet Kaufman, director of the service and a former HOME board member.

Ms. Irvine is more blunt about her standing with apartment owners. “It's still a love-hate relationship,” she says. “(But) I think there's a lot of respect.”

She recently sat on an experts panel at a seminar sponsored by the apartment association.

“As you know, fair housing is a very, very simple matter,” she told the group, in her dead-serious manner. The comment drew chuckles from landlords who have dealt with the complexities of renting, and with Ms. Irvine.

In fact, several of the landlords had previously been involved in fair-housing complaints brought by HOME. “And they have found,” says Mr. Greenberger, the lawyer who represented them, “that the best way to avoid coming up against Karla again is to sit at the feet of the master and learn.”


Piles of paper are stacked on Ms. Irvine's desk in the Community Chest Building. Although she has a capable staff, she sometimes puts aside her administrative duties to listen to clients.

“I don't want to separate myself from the street. I think it's very important to hear people's anger and hurt.”

It's why she says she has turned down offers for higher-level bureaucratic jobs.

“I know what drives my intellect. And that is being able to talk to people. And if you're sitting at HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) in Washington, you don't have that connection.”

And so she stayed in Cincinnati, where she is sometimes criticized for extending her reach beyond the bounds of traditional housing issues. She serves on the local NAACP board. She has been on police-community relations panels and has delved into hot-button topics such as the Pharon Crosby incident (in which a teen's controversial 1995 arrest was captured on videotape) and the almost annual controversy of a Ku Klux Klan cross on Fountain Square. At first glance those issues might not appear directly related to housing, she says, but they affect whether someone would want to live here.

She still believes blacks and whites can live together in the same building, or in houses on the same street. That's the environment in which she raised her daughter, Celia, who is an attorney for the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, and represents low-income tenants facing eviction.

“I have probably been an unpopular integrationist all my life,” Ms. Irvine says.

“She realizes, like so many people don't, that if people live everywhere, they will get to know each other, everywhere,” says Milton Hinton, retired president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP. “It's more than a job for Karla,” he says. “She truly believes in what she's doing, and sees it as a way to deal with the multiple problems of race we have in the community.”

Ms. Irvine says she will retire, maybe in a year or two. Until then, those who know her expect her to continue taking a tough stance against those who run afoul of fair-housing laws.

“My mother really believes that people could be good,” her daughter, Celia Irvine says. “Deep down, she believes racism could go away. I don't think she ever thinks she's going to see the day, but she has some sort of hope.”


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