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New discrimination law puts Missouri at odds with HUD

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Missouri could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds after a new law made it more difficult to sue for housing discrimination.

Missouri could lose half a million dollars in federal housing funds because of a change to the state’s discrimination law passed earlier this year.

The new law, sometimes referred to as Senate Bill 43, primarily deals with discrimination in the workplace. It requires fired workers to prove discrimination was the main reason they lost their jobs — and not one of a few reasons. But it also places a higher standard on people making housing discrimination claims.

A July 14th letter from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights objected to the new “motivating factor” standard for discrimination: “‘Discriminate’ is a term that may encompass actions that have a discriminatory effect but not a discriminatory intent.” Bryan Greene, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity signed the letter.

Greene’s letter also condemned portions of the new law that cap actual and punitive damage awards in housing discrimination lawsuits, removes provisions protecting those filing housing complaints from retaliation by exempting property owners and landlords from the new law, and requires residents to file complaints with the Missouri Human Rights Commission before they can file lawsuits.

He wrote that Missouri needs to reverse those changes and the “motivating factor” definition by March 1, 2018. Otherwise, Missouri can no longer participate in the Fair Housing Assistance Program — which means the state would lose $400,000 to $500,000 per year in federal funding. The money goes to a contract with the federal government to hear housing-related complaints.

Greene’s letter was attached to a news release from House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat who strongly opposes the new law.

“As we warned, SB 43 locks the state courthouse doors to victims of illegal discrimination and forces them to pursue justice in federal court,” McCann said. “This is one of the many ways SB 43 protects wrongdoers and punishes victims.”

Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican who voted in favor of SB43, expressed regret on Twitter that he supported the measure. “Was told it mirrored Fed law. Was a mistake,” he tweeted. “Should never have voted for it.”

HUD officials are no longer referring any housing complaints to Missouri’s Human Rights commission. The state commission must now inform those with complaints that they have the right to file directly with the federal government.

Governor Eric Greitens’ office has not responded to requests for comment.

Jason Rosenbaum contributted to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:@MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.