The current and future executive directors of the Equal Rights Center (ERC), Rabbi Bruce Kahn and Donald Kahl, are intent on debunking the myths about their Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
Though the multifamily industry only knows about the ERC from its major lawsuits, Kahl, who stepped into his role in August, says that litigation is only a small part of what the ERC does. In fact, he says most of the ERC's time is spent on research, education, outreach, and counseling. And any settlement money is used for those purposes. For instance, Kahl says it has used money in the past to hire a full-time attorney and to develop knowledge databases.
“The ERC does not look at litigation as a profit center,” Kahl says. “Unfortunately, there are situations where there's no choice. When that happens, there is an economic affect on the organization. It may be good, or it may not be.”
Kahl and Kahn use that logic to justify some of the money the organization has collected in its high-profile settlements. After settling with REIT Archstone-Smith in June 2005, six months after filing the original lawsuit, the ERC received $1.4 million in damages, attorneys' fees, and litigation expenses. “If you spend six months negotiating, the legal costs go up tremendously,” Kahl says. “This notion that we're this money-hungry group is absolutely, 100 percent, profoundly absurd.” The non-profit contends that its funding mainly comes from contributions and grants.
In 2006, the year it filed suits against Post Properties and Equity Residential, the ERC received $220,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which uses private firms under the Fair Housing Initiatives Program as educators and enforcers of fair housing laws. But when it brought more suits in 2007, the ERC received no HUD funds. Kahn says the agency ran out of money for its particular grant that year and ran into more problems in 2008.
“For 2008, our application for a three-year grant was not reviewed due to a technical error by HUD,” Kahn says. “We did not pursue it because there was already so much other work on our plate. We have applied for a HUD education and outreach grant for 2009.”
HUD, which invited Kahn to present at its biennial National Policy Board Meeting, declined to comment on those specific years. But Bryan Greene, deputy assistant secretary for enforcement and programs in HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, says that to receive HUD funding, a group must show need in the community. “We don't look to see how active you've been,” Greene says. “There may be some situations where funding is needed simply because there hasn't been a fair housing group in their community.