Dear FHEO Family:
We often hear disturbing stories when investigating cases. Some involve particularly egregious violations of the law. Others have to do with victims of discrimination losing their homes or being subjected to retaliatory actions simply for standing up for their rights.
In this installment of Profiles in Justice, we highlight the case of Jannette Cruz that reminds us of the importance of the work we do, and how truly impactful our enforcement actions can be.
Jannette Cruz wasn't looking for any special treatment. All she wanted was a decent place that she, her daughter, and granddaughter could call home. Instead, she experienced what she would later describe as one of the worst chapters of her life.
The Case of Jannette Cruz
In June 2014, Jannette Cruz, who participates in HUD's Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), and her family moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
In the following weeks and months, what had been a few bedbugs turned into an infestation. She filed several complaints with the Hazleton Housing Authority (HHA), which had issued her Housing Choice voucher, but they went unanswered because her complaints were written in Spanish and the housing authority didn't have an interpreter.
"I would write my complaints in Spanish and take them to the housing authority," Jannette remembered. "They would never give me an answer because they would tell me that my complaints were written in Spanish and they only accepted complaints written in English."
After some time, an Inspector examined her apartment and told her that the infestation was so bad that she needed to get rid of her furniture and much of her clothing. So for about a week, Jannette and her family were forced to sleep on the floor.
"I lost all of my furniture. I lost my living room set, my bedroom set, my clothing," Jannette recalled. "I had my daughter and my granddaughter, who was two months old at the time, living with me. I was so worried about them. It was horrible. It was devastating. I really don't like to think about it. Remembering it makes me feel like the bedbugs are crawling all over me again."
Jannette spent weeks going back and forth with her landlord, who refused to address the problem, claiming that she was responsible for the bedbugs. Jannette told him she'd learned that a neighbor had bedbugs as well, and that the Inspector had told her that the bedbugs were there before she moved in and were caused by a flood, but the landlord still did nothing.
Eventually her apartment became uninhabitable, and Jannette gave notice to the housing authority that she and her family would be staying with a friend. But she would not be there long.
A short time later, the housing authority and Jannette's landlord called her in for a meeting. She was again not provided an interpreter so she brought a friend to translate for her.
At the meeting, Jannette was informed that she would lose her subsidized apartment because she had violated the "Obligations of the Family" agreement she had signed by moving out of her unit without alerting both the housing authority and her landlord.
But Jannette had only received the document in English and did not understand its contents. And without a qualified interpreter at the meeting, she could neither fully explain herself nor fully understand what was being said.
"All the documents I received were in English, so because I don't know how to read or understand English, I didn't understand the responsibilities of the family," Jannette recalled. "At the meeting, the language barrier became an even bigger problem because I couldn't defend myself; I couldn't explain myself to them or communicate with them clearly. At one point, they started humiliating me and degrading me and I started to get very upset and I was getting so agitated that my friend tried to put a stop to them and said, ‘You can't do that, you have to wait, give her time to calm down.' But they didn't listen to us. Most of the focus was on the landlord."
At the end of the meeting the housing authority presented Jannette with a document that eliminated her voucher, but assured her that she would be placed in public housing as soon as possible. Since she was homeless with nowhere else to go, she signed it. A week later Jannette checked on the status of her housing and was told that she was number 100 on the housing authority's waiting list.
Hazelton Housing Authority sign regarding interpreters.
That was when Jannette decided to contact the Community Justice Project (CJP), a nonprofit public interest law firm a friend had told her about. One of several bilingual CJP employees listened to her story and informed Jannette that several other families had come to CJP about similar, though not as severe, issues they had with the housing authority.
From there, Jannette's family, along with five other families who were represented by CJP, took their stories to HUD's Region III Headquarters in Philadelphia, where the Intake Branch interviewed each family. In September 2015 HUD filed a class action complaint against the Hazleton Housing Authority alleging that it had subjected Latino applicants and residents to different terms and conditions and denied limited English proficiency services to Spanish-speaking individuals.
In April 2016, the families and HHA reached a Conciliation Agreement that required the housing authority to pay Jannette's family $4,000 and restore her voucher, and pay $2,000 each to the other five families that filed similar complaints.
The Housing Authority has also participated in "Cultural Sensitivity" training, made all resident and/or applicant documents available in Spanish, made free interpreters available to the Latino community, and agreed to hire at least one bilingual staff person for each of its buildings.
Her ordeal now behind her, Jannette has settled into a new home where her primary focus is on spending quality time with her family.
"I live in a beautiful, beautiful little apartment in Hazleton," Jannette mused. "I have a very nice landlord and I get along with him wonderfully. And the money was really, really a blessing. Because the bedbugs infected my granddaughter's crib, I bought her a new crib. I also bought my daughter a new bedroom set and I replaced most of my clothing. I saved a little bit too so that I could pay the deposit on my new apartment. And I was able to buy myself a used washer and dryer, because my old one got so messed up from using it over and over to try to wash out the bed bugs.
"It made me feel very comfortable, also, to be allowed access to my documents in Spanish. Because I can now get the documents in my language, I can read them, I can understand them. I know what I'm supposed to do and what the housing authority is supposed to do. It also satisfied me that the landlord in the new apartment brought an interpreter with him when he inspected my apartment and since she was there I was able to understand what he was saying when he told me I needed to clean the furnace in order to pass the inspection and I was able to explain what I needed and he immediately did what he had to do."
In reflecting on what she and her family went through, Jannette said she has deep gratitude for HUD and CJP for bringing justice to her community and wishes to become a voice for other families and individuals experiencing similar situations.
"I thank HUD and CJP a lot, a lot, a lot; every day. They were able to listen to my pain, my fears, my cries and they heard my story. They listened to me. They didn't judge me and they were able to help not just me but a lot of people in Hazleton. Now the Spanish community here in Hazleton is being heard.
"My goal now is to become an advocate and a voice for other families and individuals like myself who couldn't communicate, who didn't know where to turn, and because of that suffered deeply."
I commend the Region III staff Danielle Sievers, Jillian Lenson, Craig Stroman, Barbara Delaney and Richard Lew for working with our partner, the Community Justice Project, to provide Ms. Cruz and the other families with the assistance they needed during an especially difficult time in their lives.
Because of their efforts we were able to strike a blow for justice and equality.
In the coming months, let us commit ourselves to strengthening our resolve to work even harder to further fair housing throughout the nation.
Thank you for the great work that you are doing, and join me next month in celebrating another real-world success story!