HUD in Cyberspace
Arthur R. Hessel
By now, most of the readers of this column probably have access to the Internet. And those who do not—and who do not fall into the category of unrepentant curmudgeon—are probably considering obtaining Internet access.
For HUD practitioners, the World Wide Web is gaining importance as more and more information is available online.
For some time now, HUD has maintained a home page (http://www. hud.gov), which has been growing both in sophistication and usefulness. The home page (maintained and updated continually by HUD) provides information with respect to virtually all HUD programs.
Upon entering the HUD home page, you are given a number of options. Unfortunately, the descriptive words used to define these options are a bit obtuse (Homes, Featured Items, Community Center, You the Citizen, Library, Market Place, About HUD, and Town Hall) and do not give you a hint of the riches that lie at your fingertips.
In preparation for this article, I decided to explore a few topics at random to see what I could come up with. (I admit that day-to-day I don’t take the time to fiddle for the sake of fiddling, and that I am still curmudgeon enough that my house, as opposed to my office, is Internet-free.)
For no particular reason, I entered the "Homes" section. I found that I could access additional information regarding the acquisition of HUD-held homes, or homes with FHA mortgage insurance, in language written for the prospective home buyer. I could see listings of actual homes for sale in twenty-six locations across the country. Looking at the Washington, D.C., listing, I saw descriptions of approximately twenty homes to be sold within the next ten days. I found detailed instructions for real estate brokers wishing to participate in the sale of HUD homes.
Similarly, I found details on HUD Title I Home Improvement Programs, and hyperlinks (which I did not follow) to the discussion of housing opportunities for low-income persons, the homeless, people with HIV or AIDS, people with disabilities, senior citizens, migrant farm workers, Native Americans, and veterans. There were also hyperlinks to housing counseling services and lead-based paint. I decided to explore Fair Housing, an area in which I have occasion to work, to see what was available online. I can only say that I was surprised by the extent of the material that flashed on my screen. For example:
(1) I found a layman’s description of the Fair Housing Act, drafted by HUD, which provides an extremely well-written summary of the coverage of the legislation and of the various procedures to be followed when one feels himself or herself to have been the victim of discrimination in one of the many areas covered by the legislation (http://www.hud.gov/fheo.html).
(2) I found the home page of the National Fair Housing Advocate (published by the Fair Housing Council, Louisville, Ky.), a source of additional Internet references, including the "Guide to Practice Open Housing Law Case Database" (http://www.fairhousing. com/bcm/), a searchable database prepared by F. Willis Caruso of the John Marshall Law School that contains more than 500 cases.
(3) Similarly, I was led to an ever-expanding database of almost 800 cases maintained by the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit for the National Fair Housing Alliance (http://www.fairhousing.com/30nccd/). It also includes a database containing HUD Administrative Law Judge decisions, prepared by the National Fair Housing Advocate with the cooperation of HUD (http://www.fairhousing.com/alj/index.htm). I also found the Federal Fair Housing Litigation index maintained by the Fair Housing Legal Support Center of Cleveland, Ohio (http://www.fairhousing.com/ffhli).
(4) Finally, I found a job bank, a list of upcoming fair housing conferences, copies of various HUD notices (such as those on intake procedures, occupancy standards, and rules for advertising), fair housing articles and press releases, and copies of current HUD NOFAS. I was also able to participate in a significant number of e-mail forums on a staggering array of fair-lending topics.
Perhaps the biggest deficiency of the Fair Housing sections of the HUD home page is a lack of access to the statute itself. This can be independently accessed in the United States House of Representatives Internet Law Library (if you know the United States Code title and section number of the Fair Housing Act) at http://www.law. house.gov./usc.htm. This will provide you with text and history, but will not give you the case annotations found in the printed or CD-ROM versions published by West.
Although the Internet sources on this topic were hardly exhausted, at this point I decided to change direction and look at another area, to see if my search would be as fruitful. Although my subsequent search led me to some interesting places, I began to wonder if I had not simply struck the mother lode with my initial concentration on fair housing.
For instance, my approach to the "Library" (referenced on the HUD home page) was only partially successful. The handiest interface on that page is the link with HUD User (http://www.huduser.org/data.html), maintained by Aspen Systems for HUD. From HUD User, I could find fiscal year 1996 income limits in use for HUD programs and fair market rent data, as well as the proposed fair market rents for fiscal year 1997. This is useful information, although the on-screen format could be much more user-friendly. HUD User also contains the new low-income-housing tax credit database currently being developed.
Much of the remainder of the material accessible through the "Library" is not necessarily of general interest. There are a number of sources for statistical information and a number of HUD news releases and papers. HUD also makes it possible to order HUD forms by e-mail, although the HUD "Forms Warehouse" is search-based and not easy to use. On the other hand, HUD does index all effective handbooks, notices, and mortgagee letters, and permits you to order them online. In this way, although all the documents themselves have not been placed on the Web, you can certainly keep up with what has been issued by HUD. Through its "Library," HUD (through a hyperlink) will connect you with sites where the Federal Register can be searched, although it is not possible to go back prior to the 1995 issues, thus limiting the scope of this site for research.
Finally, there are a few other helpful sites accessible through the HUD home page. You can submit requests under the Freedom of Information Act by e-mail (http://www.hud.gov/foiafree.html), and you can obtain more information than you ever thought you needed to know from the HUD Office of Inspector General (IG) (http://www.hud.oig/oigindex.html). This information includes the IG’s semiannual reports to Congress, issued audit reports on HUD offices and HUD program participants, and IG testimony before Congress. You can get up-to-date information about HUD property and mortgage sales. And lastly, you can access information regarding HUD staff (including field office staff) and e-mail each HUD employee directly.
I recognize that having Internet access to the HUD home page will not provide you with the full-fledged research and information-gathering capability that is needed to maintain a successful law practice, but there is no question that it will provide you with desktop shopping for many of your needs and provide you with an easy way to keep current on HUD affairs. It is well worth an evening, or a weekend morning, to familiarize yourself with what is available and to "bookmark" the home page and those other sites that will be most helpful to you.
I would be happy to hear from those of you interested in my bookmarks, or who have comments relating to sites that I may not know exist. I can be reached at ahessel@ hapc.mhl.compuserve.com.
Arthur R. Hessel was formerly with HUD and now practices law with Hessel & Aluise, P.C., in Washington, D.C.
This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared in the Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, Fall 1996 (6:1).