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Woman fights for fair housing for more than 50 years

August 20, 2018
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In this photo taken Aug. 10, 2018, Lee Porter, left, and Sen. Cory Booker, right, laugh along with Dave Sims as Fair Housing Council of Northern New Jersey holds a picnic in Hackensack, N.J. (Anne-Marie Caruso/The Record via AP)

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. (AP) — When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law in 1968, Lee Porter, who had been battling housing discrimination in Bergen County for years, thought she would have to return to her career as a licensed X-ray technician.

Instead, Porter, now 91, is still fighting for equal housing in New Jersey 50 years later as the executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Northern New Jersey.

“We are still hanging on in there; we are still fighting,” she said in a recent interview in her office in Hackensack. “It makes me feel like a failure, because I felt we should have conquered this a long time ago. It should have been equal opportunity in housing within 25 years, and we are still fighting it.

“We thought we were going to win this battle fast,” Porter said. “It’s happening, but not fast enough.”

The Fair Housing Act, which Johnson signed days after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, outlawed housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status or national origin. It also aimed to eliminate residential segregation.

On Friday, Porter and other employees of the Fair Housing Council of Northern New Jersey, a nonprofit founded in 1959, celebrated the anniversary at a picnic in Hackensack. Among the participants was Sen. Cory Booker, whose family was helped by the nonprofit agency when they searched for a house in Bergen County in 1969.

“Lee was a hero in our house,” he said after taking a selfie with Porter to send to his mother. “All of my life, one of the greatest heroes I have — that includes Martin Luther King and it includes . Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman — but ... I have to say, one of the titans in my life is Lee Porter. I feel so blessed by her. The whole trajectory of my family was changed by her love and her activism, and those who stood with her and worked with her during those times.”

Porter has seen the impact that housing discrimination can have on families in New Jersey, and how it has evolved since she started out as a volunteer helping minorities, most of them African-American, find homes.

In the 1960s and 1970s, she said, discrimination was blatant and based mostly on race. Today, it remains pernicious, but it takes more subtle forms, such as real estate agents showing fewer available properties and apartments to minorities than to equally qualified whites.

Contemporary complaints also go beyond race. The organization now investigates a mix of allegations of unfair treatment toward gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and families who rely on subsidies to pay their rent.

“Race and color has diminished a bit as far as the complaints are concerned, but not the degree of discrimination,” Porter said. “We are not handling as many race and color discrimination complaints as we used to, but it doesn’t mean that they are not out there. It’s just that they are not coming to us. It’s more discrimination on behalf of disability, age and mostly the aged with disabilities who need service animals.”

More than 8,300 complaints were filed under the Fair Housing Act in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2016, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than half alleged discrimination based on disability, which has consistently ranked as the No.1 reason for housing bias in recent years. Allegations of race-based discrimination accounted for 2,154 complaints, and discrimination on the basis of national origin accounted for 917, HUD said.

In New Jersey, the Division on Civil Rights initiated 119 housing discrimination investigations in 2017. Disability-based allegations were most common, followed by those having to do with race, said Leland Moore, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office Division on Civil Rights. The agency has six full-time housing investigators who look into the complaints, some of which are referred by the Fair Housing Council.

As it did in the 1960s, the council continues to send “testers” to visit properties or to meet with real estate agents when discrimination is alleged. The testers, who represent different racial and minority groups, are trained by the council and are called in when they are needed. They get paid a small stipend for their efforts.

In April, the council reached a settlement with a property owner that had turned away a black woman who had planned to use a subsidy to help her pay her rent.

“Most people don’t realize that people who are on rent subsidy are good, hardworking people; they just don’t make enough to support these high-priced rentals every single month,” Porter said. “They are working people, just like everyone else, and they are good.”

Helen Consiglio, a housing counselor and testing coordinator at the agency, said the woman was the single parent of a 9-year-old son, so they had to figure out if the discrimination she alleged was based on her race, because she had a child, or because of the rent subsidy.

Consiglio sent testers to the apartment building in Passaic County, both black and white, and they encountered similar treatment, she said. The testing revealed a pattern of discrimination based on race and familial status, she said.

The Fair Housing Council filed a complaint against the property owner with HUD in August 2016. The owner denied the allegations.

The settlement calls for the property owner to pay $20,000 to the Fair Housing Council, and for the agency to conduct three follow-up tests at the property, at the owner’s expense. The owner also agreed to require employees with property management or maintenance duties to attend fair housing training.

Among those who have benefited from the Fair Housing Council’s work is Lisa Fallacara of Lyndhurst, who became homeless three years ago after a divorce and later received a voucher for rental assistance. Fallacara, a mother of three teenagers at the time, kept getting rejected when she looked at apartments. She said she went to the council, which taught her about her rights under the law. She now refers her friends to the agency.

“When I talked to them they told me the rules,” she said. “They let me know renters do have rights and they just can’t keep turning us away.”

In 1945, more than 20 years before the Fair Housing Act was signed, the state Legislature enacted the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which some describe as the first comprehensive anti-discrimination statute in the country. State lawmakers amended the statute in 1954 to prohibit discrimination in public housing, and in 1961 they amended the law again to prohibit housing discrimination in general.

Porter volunteered with the Fair Housing Council in the early 1960s after she sought help from the organization while looking for a house in Bergen County for months without luck. She was living in East Orange at the time and hoped to move to her new house before school started in September. She and her husband, Richard, would scan newspaper advertisements for houses, but weren’t given the opportunity to see any of the ones they liked, she said.

Instead, real estate agents would steer them to houses in black neighborhoods in Teaneck and Englewood, she said.

“We only saw the houses that were available to persons of color, in racially segregated neighborhoods,” she recalled. “Somebody said, ‘Why don’t you get those fair housing people,’ who were all volunteers. . I went out one day with a fair housing person, and I bought the house in one day, and I’m still in it. That was over 50 years ago.”

After Porter and her husband bought their house in Bergenfield, she volunteered with the council. Her duties included serving as a tester.

When Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, Porter said, she thought she would return to her career as an X-ray technician in New York City. But she agreed to become the council’s executive director in 1971, with the expectation that the commitment would be for just a year. Forty-seven years later, she is still running the organization.

“It reached a point when I didn’t renew my license and my boards in New York and New Jersey anymore, and I stayed another year and another year,” she said. “And now it’s a lot of years. I didn’t select it; I sort of fell into it by default.”

The organization, which began with volunteers holding meetings in church halls, business and homes, now employs about a dozen full-time and part-time staff members and has annual revenues that exceed $770,000, according to its 2016 tax form.

Porter goes to the agency’s Hackensack offices most days, and she attends housing conferences on occasion She has plans to go to one next month in Washington organized by HUD.

As the council’s executive director, she is responsible for its budget, finding sources of revenue, applying for funding and organizing education programs on housing discrimination.

“I have to admire her perseverance, her tenacity and her ability to stay focused on the job,” Consiglio said. “She’s 100 percent focused on keeping this place focused on the vision.”

The Fair Housing Council also advises homeowners who are facing foreclosure, helping them negotiate with banks to avoid losing their homes.

“People fall into delinquency, and before they foreclose they have to come to us for counseling,” she explained. “And we try to work out a new program for them; we try to save the mortgage.”

In recent years, Porter said, helping families stay in their homes has been among the more rewarding parts of her job.

“I do like saving the home, keeping the family in the home,” she said. “To me, that is very, very important.”

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Online:

https://njersy.co/2PktVlA

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Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com

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