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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Clifford Boardman, Esquire
Attorney for the Fair Housing Council of
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
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
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
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.
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
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