Fairways 1996

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Reminiscences of a Family

by Ora M. Gudnitz

Editor’s note : For those who were privileged to attend the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the FHCSP, what follows is a re-cap of sorts of Ora Gudnitz’s moving presentation: those who missed it will hopefully be able to absorb at least some of its flavor. - NLG

Looking back at the great work the Fair Housing Council has done over the past forty years, I am reminded of what this organization did for my family.  It was 1969, almost twenty-seven years ago, when we moved into an all-white neighborhood in Yeadon, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.  It was not our intention to integrate a neighborhood.  We were simply desperate to find an apartment or a house to rent.  My husband, our three children, and I had been brought to this predicament by several decisions we had made through naiveté regarding racism.  We were not aware of the underlying fears people had, whether conscious or unconscious.  I was born in Arkansas and educated in a private school and college in Tennessee.  My innocence regarding racism was due to my religious parents and to neighbors who were so nurturing that the prejudice and frequent violent acts against blacks did not have a lasting impact on me during my formative years.  There were also Caucasian people that helped us.  And looking back, I can remember several times when they encouraged me to do my best.  

Therefore, when I went to Denmark with the Scandinavian Seminar for Cultural Studies (made up of 35 students from across the United States), I was innocent and open-minded.  We were assigned Scandinavian families.  My Danish family and I got along so well that they became “my family.”  They understood more about racism in America than I, and when I told them I would marry a Danish student I had met, who was also an award-winning cabinet maker, they begged me not to return to America but to stay in Denmark.  Against their advice, we returned to America help my family.  

Whatever the reason, in 1969 my husband decided to move us from West Philadelphia to a bigger house outside the city.  In fact, he had found a house for sale in Willistown, Chester County.  He put our house up for sale and gave the owner a down payment on the Willistown house.  With this transaction he was given permission to start renovations in the house.  After several weeks, my husband decided to show the children and me what he had accomplished, especially the beautiful work he had done in the living room and kitchen.  The house was indeed lovely and spacious, with a large backyard with peach and apple trees. The neighborhood was attractive, with single houses.  We were elated.  What we didn’t know was that we were being observed by some neighbors who spread the word.  We were not just a black family, but worse, an interracial family.  This could not be allowed in their neighborhood.  

The owner was contacted.  He, however, decided it was better to let my husband continue to work on the house as if all were well.  As fate would have it, shortly after we sold our West Philadelphia home, the owner of the house in Willistown told my husband why he could not sell his house to us.  The neighbors were up in arms against him.  They considered him a traitor.  He had not known, until they told him, that we were an interracial family.  He refused to return the deposit or reimburse us for improvements.  

We were shocked and turned to the court system for justice.  We hired a very good Philadelphia attorney from a prestigious firm.  Our lawyer was sympathetic but told us that it would be too costly and that it was very unlikely that justice would prevail.  We simply did not have the funds to fight the injustice that wove itself through subtle and overt racism.  

The worst was yet to come! The family who purchased our home had sympathized with the irony of our situation, but after six weeks, demanded that we move out.  Our situation became desperate.  Our search for housing intensified.  No one wanted to rent to a family with children.  Today we are grateful that through the hard, tireless work of organizations like the Fair Housing Council the prejudice against families with children is being eradicated.  But it was not so in 1969.  

Finally, when we were about to give up all hope and were in deep despair, a white family in Yeadon said they would rent us their former home.  It was a twin house.  They had held onto it after they moved into a lovely, single house near the park in Yeadon.  Their humanitarian gesture would bring them many enemies.  They, like the members of the Fair Housing Council, were courageous enough to stand up for fairness and against bigotry.  We moved in gratefully and innocently.  We did not know that we would be living a nightmare that would not end until we moved from the neighborhood three years later. 

The neighbors tried every tactic to scare us away.  They threw stones at the windows and garbage against the walls.  Our daughter and son, who were the first minority children to enter Bell Avenue School, were ostracized and kicked by those children whose families were the most intolerant.  Our son at six was more valiant, however, and took the punches.  He persevered, and before long he was accepted by all the boys in his class.  To show the sincerity of his acceptance, all the boys came to his birthday party.  Some of the parents who gave in, I believe, were influenced by the work of the Fair Housing Council. 

Another instance of kindness and acceptance was shown by the family whose backyard faced on an angle to our backyard.  They dared to be friendly and allow their girls, who were near the same age as our girls, to come over and play.  This kindness kept hope alive, but the nightmare of bigotry persisted.  We appealed to the Human Relations Commission and the NAACP.  They took turns protecting our house at night for several weeks.  When they left to help others, we again turned to the Yeadon police, who excused themselves by saying they did not have enough officers to give us protection several hours per night.  Only when my husband told them he had purchased an automatic rifle that could shoot sixteen rounds before reloading did the police become efficient, and the neighbors stopped attacking the house. 

The nightmare that we continued to endure took its toll on me.  I relived the conversation with my Danish family and my adamant response to their good advice many times, but never more than during those early years in Yeadon.  Just before all hope was gone, we were told about the Fair Housing Council and were invited to attend a meeting at Cary Isard’s house.  It was one of the best invitations we ever received.  The home was full of gracious people of different racial groups and religions.  They had one central purpose: to help all people acquire a home in a neighborhood of their choice, regardless of race, creed, or color.  There were no ulterior motives, just commitment to equal opportunity.  Living in Yeadon, not unlike many suburban towns, made us say as Dorothy did in The Wizard of Oz to her dog, “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.”  We laughed jokingly and said to each other, “We don’t think we are in West Philadelphia or even Arkansas anymore.”  

The Fair Housing Council really made the difference.  There were many friendly acquaintances made during those years, but none stood out more than these: Cary Isard, Kathleen Henderson, Marjorie Breedis, Naomi Marcus and Elaine Eisenman.  That first meeting and all the special occasions and activities that followed during the year sheltered us and renewed our faith in people.  It also emboldened us to be vigilant and committed to equal rights until the laws protected all people, enabling them to have housing without discrimination.  

The Fair Housing Council has accomplished much during these trying but glorious 40 years.  Nevertheless we are faced with a new century, and its decades will be filled with challenges to human rights.  We must not grow weary now in well doing. Human nature has not changed.  We are not angels.  We naturally gravitate towards those who mirror us in appearance, ability, and achievements.  If we are not vigilant we can regress and let our accomplishments fade away.  

Rather than that, let us who have been there and done much these past four decades, inspire the young to keep alert and protect our democratic principles expressed in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. This pursuit of happiness begins with good housing that becomes nurturing homes for each succeeding generation.

Our heartfelt thanks to everyone here and to those who could not join us today. You have made the difference in advancing equal rights and fair housing opportunities for all people. We salute you on this 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia.


Continuing to Eradicate Segregation Commentary

By Clifford Boardman, Esquire

Attorney for the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia

           Continuing in its efforts to eradicate the segregation of families with children, the FHCSP has filed another eleven lawsuits in United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania. This move was prompted by the intractability of many newspapers and real estate brokers in correcting their behavior and accepting the consequences of their conduct. 

Montgomery Newspapers, for example, published articles last month essentially stating that "no children" advertisements did not violate the fair housing advertising laws.  Yet, Montgomery Newspapers had been charged over two years ago with advertising discrimination and, thus, has had plenty of time to read the law and understand its basic meaning.  Similarly, The Main Line Times, while resolving two charges in the last five years, published a further discriminatory advertisement last November.  Also, The Journal Register Company, publisher of many of the newspapers charged with discrimination over two years ago, continues to this day to have some of its newspapers, e.g. the Phoenix and the Suburban, publish bigoted advertisements. 

Not only do the newspapers continue publishing discriminatory ads, many charged newspapers and real estate agents have refused to sign agreements that would require them not to discriminate in the future, to obtain training in the law, to keep records of their advertisements and to pay the minimum fine for their conduct. The FHCSP has not accepted these refusals.  The FHCSP is well aware that to change the behavior of entire industries, here Pennsylvania newspapers, real estate agents and apartment owners, the terms of these agreements must be met in full. 

Indeed, the failure of these industries to correct the problem has been profound. Rather than confront and correct their failures, these industries sought delay and protection from the state.  At the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC"), the newspapers, along with their trade group The Pennsylvania Newspapers Publishers Association, stated no fines would be paid and demanded that an advertising "arbitration board" be created to determine if advertisements are segregatory.  Of course, the industries are already protected by the PHRC's and a jury's review of the meaning of their advertisements.  Further, while the industries have contended the advertising laws are ambiguous, they have never been able to establish this.  In fact, most of the words they take exception to, e.g. "room with a view," "walk in closet," have never been considered violations of the law and no charges have ever been filed about such terms. The other words the industry contends are ambiguous, e.g. "ideal for retiree," or "perfect for empty nester," are not ambiguous - they are listed as violations of the law in the federal and state fair housing advertising guidelines.

Even more revealing is that every real estate agent when questioned about those latter advertisements readily admitted that he or she believed the houses or apartments would more likely be bought or rented by those without children - so why not advertise that.  Yet, prejudging the market for a property based on a protected class is the definition of discrimination.  Interestingly, despite mandatory fair housing education for licensure, these real estate agents have rejected this definition and plead ignorance.    Unwilling to accept that they may not continue to prejudge markets for homes and apartments, the real estate and newspaper industries have taken their hopes for protection to the state legislature.  This was not a difficult decision as at least one of the state representatives, Dennis Leh, is a member of a board of Realtors.

Representative Leh simply proposed legislation following the real estate brokers’ agenda of, inter alia, an advertising board (members to be selected through a political process), the raising of significant hurdles in the administrative process, the transfer of power to local real estate zoning boards to limit occupancy rates, and the reduction of the minimum fines from $10,000 to $500.  The PHRC opposed the bill as it, "would reverse years of civil rights progress."  The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has tentatively stated that the bill, if passed, would cause Pennsylvania to be so out of step and backward that HUD could no longer have the PHRC investigate discrimination cases for HUD. 

In the end, the purpose of the proposed bill is to repeal the fair housing advertising laws by denying them any teeth, and to state to the citizens of Pennsylvania that families with children are to remain segregated from our neighborhoods.  The FHCSP will continue to oppose passage of this law.  The FHCSP will continue its efforts to have the real estate and newspaper industry comply with this country's commitment to equality.


FHCSP Has Reached Ten Settlements with Newspapers and Housing Providers

 During the past several months the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia has achieved settlements with 8 property owners and 2 newspaper owners.  These include Beiler-Campbell Realtors, Louis Griffonetti, Chester R. Lewis, James and Betsy Mark, the owners of an apartment complex in Aston Township, Delaware County, the owners of Bishop Hill Apartments and the Marquis, the owners of Oxhaven Apartments and Clover House, the owners of Park Towne Place, the owners of the Chester County Press, and the owners of The Reporter and of the Town and Country newspapers.  The consent orders, while not constituting admission by the defendants of any violation of state or federal anti-discrimination law, provide for both monetary and injunctive relief.

Except for a two-year agreement with the owner of an Aston Township apartment complex, all the settlements cover a period of three years.  They concern advertising practices for rental and/or sales, training of staff regarding fair housing law, and maintenance of records which are available to the FHCSP upon request.  According to the agreements, the advertisements and communications of the defendants may neither state nor imply preference, limitations, or discrimination based on race, color, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, gender, age, national origin, disability or the use of a guide or support animal.  The defendants will also display equal housing opportunity information in well-lit public places in their offices.  Additionally, owners of the Chester County Press, The Reporter and Town and Country newspapers have agreed to provide in-kind advertising space for the Council.