Fair Housing:

HUD Needs Better Assurance That Intake and Investigation Processes Are Consistently Thorough

GAO-06-79: Published: Oct 31, 2005. Publicly Released: Dec 1, 2005.

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Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) and related state and local Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) agencies receive and investigate several thousand complaints of housing discrimination. These activities, including required conciliation attempts, are directed by HUD's standards, which are based on law, regulation, and best practices. GAO's 2004 report examining trends in case outcomes raised questions about the quality and consistency of the intake (the receipt of initial inquiries) and investigation processes. This follow-up report assesses the thoroughness of fair housing intake and investigation (including conciliation) processes, and complainant satisfaction with the process.

Evidence from several sources raises questions about the timeliness and thoroughness of the intake process. Thirty percent of complainants GAO surveyed noted that it was either somewhat or very difficult to reach a live person the first time they contacted a fair housing agency. GAO experienced similar difficulty in test calls it made to each of the 10 FHEO and 36 state FHAP agency intake centers. For example, 5 locations did not respond to the test calls. Further, FHEO and FHAP agencies do not consistently record in their automated information system contacts they receive that they consider potential fair housing inquiries and timeliness data are unreliable, limiting the system's effectiveness as a management control. GAO's review of a national random sample of 197 investigative case files for investigations completed within the last 6 months of 2004 found varying levels of documentation that FHEO and FHAP investigators met investigative standards and followed recommended procedures. Further, though the Fair Housing Act requires that agencies always attempt conciliation to the extent feasible, only about a third of the files showed evidence of such attempts. FHEO officials stated that the required investigation and conciliation actions may have been taken but not documented as required in case files. According to GAO's survey of a national random sample of 575 complainants whose complaint investigations were recently completed, about half were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the outcome of the fair housing complaint process, and almost 40 percent would be unlikely to file a complaint in the future. Although GAO and survey respondents found that FHEO and FHAP agency staff were generally courteous and helpful, important lapses remain in the complaint process that may affect not only how complainants feel about the process but also how thoroughly and promptly their cases are handled.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On January 20, 2006 HUD issued a technical guidance memo (TGM) to all FHEO employees, which addressed all aspects of FHEO customer service and clearly listed information that should be collected during the initial contact with a complainant. In June 2006 FHEO conducted mandatory training for all FHEO staff in accordance with guidance presented the January 2006 customer service TGM and continued with training on specific topics such as Handling Difficult Customer Situations.

    Recommendation: To ensure that complainants are able to readily contact a fair housing agency and file a complaint, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to ensure that intake activities are conducted consistently. Specific actions may include establishing clear standards for information that should be collected with the initial contact.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD technical guidance memo (TGM) issued on January 20, 2006 to all FHEO employees set benchmarks and performance goals for FHEO employees in responding to initial contacts (complaint inquiries). FHEO's Office of Field Oversight (OFO) conducts periodic test calls to field offices with joint objectives of examining how well these offices have implemented the customer service guidance outlined in the January 20, 2006 TGM and assessing improvements in their customer service over time. On April 7, 2006, FHEO initiated random test calls in accordance with the January 20, 2006 Customer Service Technical Guidance Memorandum.

    Recommendation: To ensure that complainants are able to readily contact a fair housing agency and file a complaint, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to ensure that intake activities are conducted consistently. Specific actions may include creating benchmarks and performance goals for the treatment of complainants during the initial contact, including measures of responsiveness, such as hold times and call-back timeliness, as well as measures of completeness of initial information collection.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD technical guidance memo (TGM) issued on January 20, 2006 to all FHEO employees provided guidance on timeframes for responding to time-sensitive inquiries.

    Recommendation: To ensure that complainants are able to readily contact a fair housing agency and file a complaint, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to ensure that intake activities are conducted consistently. Specific actions may include developing special procedures for identifying and responding to time-sensitive inquiries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Performance standards for FHEO regional directors reflect benchmarks such as timeliness of converting inquiries into complaints; completeness of Title Eight Automated Paperless Office Tracking System (TEAPOTS) entries; and timeliness of investigations. FHEO's Office of Field Oversight (OFO) conducts periodic test calls to field offices with joint objectives of examining how well these offices have implemented the customer service guidance outlined in the January 20, 2006 TGM and assessing improvements in their customer service over time. HUD developed a performance assessment tool for all participating FHAPs that includes an assessment of whether FHAP agencies comply with guidelines provided in 24 CFR Part 115, its new regulation for FHAPs, which was made effective April 16, 2007.

    Recommendation: To ensure that complainants are able to readily contact a fair housing agency and file a complaint, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to ensure that intake activities are conducted consistently. Specific actions may include establishing means (including automation, where appropriate) of assuring that standards, benchmarks, and special procedures are followed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: -HUD provided training for FHAP agencies based on its new regulation for FHAPs set forth in 24 CFR Part 115 and instructs FHAPs to use TEAPOTS for recording all inquiries that allege housing discrimination. HUD's 2008 cooperative agreement with all FHAP agencies states that FHAPs must use the Initial Contact Date field in TEAPOTS to record the actual date on which the complainant first contacts the Agency or FHEO to inquire about filing a housing discrimination complaint, or to report an alleged discriminatory housing practice. The cooperative agreement also contains guidance for FHAPs in documenting a complainant's initial contact. In its performance assessment tool for FHAPs, HUD includes a requirement that FHAPs use TEAPOTS for recording complaint information.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the Title Eight Automated Paperless Office Tracking System (TEAPOTS) as a management control in assuring that potential Title VIII-related contacts are identified and assessing performance in meeting timeliness guidelines, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to specify that FHAP agencies use TEAPOTS for recording initial inquiry dates for all inquiries, as defined in the Title VIII Handbook, that allege housing discrimination.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD's cooperative agreement with all FHAP agencies states that FHAPs must use the Initial Contact Date field in TEAPOTS to record the actual date on which the complainant first contacts the Agency or FHEO to inquire about filing a housing discrimination complaint, or to report an alleged discriminatory housing practice. The cooperative agreement also contains guidance for FHAPs in documenting a complainant's initial contact.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of TEAPOTS as a management control in assuring that potential Title VIII-related contacts are identified and assessing performance in meeting timeliness guidelines, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to require that the initial inquiry date reflect the first contact made by the complainant, regardless of whether that contact was with FHEO or a FHAP agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FHEO's April 8, 2009 Technical Guidance Memorandum (TGM) was issued to direct all FHEO staff to improve customer service and case processing in response to the concerns outlined in our 2005 report including adherence to standards and procedures concerning planning and conducting investigations. This guidance highlights the need to increase the quality of performance in the areas of documentation procedures in intake, case investigation and case closure. Specifically, the TGM addresses the need for documentation of notifications of complaint, amendment, and closure and that 100-day letters are sent before an investigation has reached 100 days.

    Recommendation: To enhance FHEO and FHAP agency ability to assess the thoroughness of investigations, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to establish documentation standards and appropriate controls to ensure that required notifications of complaint, amendment, and closure are made and received, and that 100-day letters are sent before an investigation has reached 100 days.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: In HUD's April 2009 Technical Guidance Memorandum addressed Documentation Standards and Controls. It highlighted the importance of planning and conducting investigations including the first step being preparing an Investigative Plan (IP). The TGM outlined what should be included in the IP.

    Recommendation: To enhance FHEO and FHAP agency ability to assess the thoroughness of investigations, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to clarify requirements for planning investigations, including specifying when plans must be prepared, their content, and review and approval.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The new FHAP regulation (published in 2007) includes performance standards that specifically deal with conciliation and FHAP agencies ensuring compliance with conciliation agreements (24 CFR 115.206(e)(3) and (4)). In assessing the performance of these standards, as appropriate, FHEO provides technical assistance (including providing best practices) to FHAP agencies. The regulation states the following: During the period beginning with the filing of a complaint and ending with filing a charge or dismissal, the agency, to the extent feasible, attempts to conciliate the complaint. After the charge has been issued, the agency, to the extent feasible, continues to attempt settlement until a hearing or a judicial proceeding has begun. The regulation states that "In addressing this standard, review agency's policies, procedures, and actual practices related to conciliation". FHAP agencies are required to describe the extent of the 'attempt' to conciliate, e.g., one time by letter, were there early and late attempts; how/where conciliation attempts are documented and continued attempts to settle until a hearing or judicial proceeding has begun. They are required to note their observations, and any and all concerns pertaining to this standard. This assessment tool allows FHEO to identify conciliation best practices. Also, the National Fair Housing Training Academy (NFHTA) offers a course entitled Conciliation for Investigators that incorporated examples of mediation best practices. The first NFHTA Conciliation training was held December 9-12, 2008.

    Recommendation: To ensure that some form of conciliation is made available for all complainants, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to work with FHAP agencies and others to develop best practices for offering conciliation throughout the complaint process, including at its outset.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: -HUD Technical Guidance Memo (TGM) issued on January 20, 2006 to all FHEO employees set guidelines for conciliation attempts to be made throughout the complaint process, for all attempts to be documented, and for managers to review such documentation. The documentation of conciliation attempts includes complainants' and respondent's declination of conciliation assistance. Also, HUD's TGM issued on April 8, 2009, outlines the ongoing role of HUD's conciliator. It reaffirms that the conciliator should fully document all conciliation attempts in a dated log, including notes on the course of negotiations, which clearly demonstrate his or her efforts to achieve voluntary resolution of the complaint. In its performance assessment tool for FHAPs, HUD includes an assessment of whether FHAP agencies comply with guidelines for attempting conciliation in accordance with 24 CFR Part 115 and documenting such attempts to conciliate.

    Recommendation: To ensure that some form of conciliation is made available for all complainants, the HUD Secretary should direct the Assistant Secretary of FHEO to ensure that investigators comply with requirements to document conciliation attempts, and complainants' or respondents' declination of conciliation assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

 

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