Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never got to see the Fair Housing Act signed into law. King was assassinated just a week before in Memphis, Tenn.
More than 50 years later, King, who played a large role in the fair housing movement, and his legacy lives on through people such as Michelle Rydz, who is the head of the High Plains Fair Housing Center in Grand Forks. Rydz was recently recognized for her work with UND’s MLK-The Dream in Action award.
“It was exciting and almost made me emotional,” Rydz said of receiving the Dream in Action award. “(The passage of the Fair Housing Act) was really this great testimony to Martin Luther King’s legacy and so it made me proud to be a part of that and to win the award and to be recognized for that was exciting.”
During the early 20th century, King, is his role as a civil rights leader, recognized that black Americans were deprived of sufficient, quality housing because they were routinely excluded from living in certain areas, according to the Equal Rights Center, adding that discrimination, intimidation, exclusion and even violence segregated and relegated black people to low-income areas with poor quality housing.
King’s work eventually led to the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
“Michelle has been working since 2013 to continue Dr. King’s legacy by enforcing the Fair Housing Act throughout North Dakota,” Stacey Borboa-Peterson wrote for the recent award ceremony. “Michelle is co-founder and executive director of High Plains Fair Housing Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Grand Forks that works to promote fair housing through education, training, advocacy and enforcement. Michelle’s devotion to Dr. King’s dream that people be able to choose their housing freely, without racial bias, makes her a well-deserving recipient of the Dream in Action Award.”
Rydz co-founded the High Plains Fair Housing Center with Margaret Jackson, a UND law professor, when Jackson noted there was a need for a fair housing center in the area.
Before getting involved with High Plains Fair Housing Center, Rydz didn’t know a lot about fair housing. Growing up in Chicago, she knew of the history of segregation and housing segregation in the city and throughout the U.S., but Rydz quickly became a strong advocate and voice for the protection of the Fair Housing Act as the High Plains Fair Housing Center was formed.
Through the organization's advocacy programs, intake specialists work to obtain the housing clients need or remedy a situation through landlord mediation.
North Dakota’s biggest issue of housing discrimination is based on persons with disabilities, Rydz said. Another issue, that is often under reported, is discrimination against Native Americans.
The organization also provides fair housing education and outreach to housing consumers, housing industry groups and local governments, Rydz said. This work includes conducting presentations and training, producing and distributing fair housing materials, participating in panel discussions and being a resource for housing discrimination questions. It also partners with agencies and organizations across the state to promote fair housing policies and practices in North Dakota.
Additionally, the High Plains Fair Housing Center conducts fair housing tests to ensure fair housing is a reality in North Dakota, Rydz noted. The center pays a monetary stipend to testers, who attempt to go into a potential rental situation to ensure parties are being treated equally.
“Testing is completely legal; it’s upheld by the Supreme Court,” Rydz said. “It’s kind of like secret shopping. We’ll send somebody from a protected class into simulate a rental or a lending situation and then somebody who is not from a protected class, and then we compare treatment.”
Other Dream in Action award winners included the Thunder Robotics team from Hatton/Northwood schools who helped build a motorized wheelchair for Emma Bastings and UND's occupational therapy program, which was recognized with two awards, one for its entire department and one for Dr. LaVonne Fox, a faculty member in the department.