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Home Sweet Home 

On the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, meet the organization still battling to reverse housing segregation in Richmond.

click to enlarge cover38_housing_no_headlines.jpg

In the summer of 1978, a Richmond bus driver named Paul Allen Coles visited the Camelot Townhouses near Regency Mall in western Henrico County looking for a new home. A rental agent informed Coles, who is black, that there were no vacancies at Camelot and politely directed him to the adjacent Colonial Court Apartments. Within hours, a white applicant heard a different story. Housing was, indeed, available at Camelot — for him.

The discrepancy was not hard to explain. Virtually everyone strolling the sidewalks and green spaces of the Camelot complex was white. In contrast, the less desirable Colonial Court drew a racially mixed clientele.

Thus was born what would become a landmark 1982 Supreme Court ruling, Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman. The case not only validated Coles' claim of housing discrimination but, even more importantly, determined that the fledgling organization which had sponsored his lawsuit — and other similar groups — had legal standing to sue over violations of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

click to enlarge African-American protestors carried signs for equal rights, integrated schools and decent housing during the 1963 March on Washington.
  • African-American protestors carried signs for equal rights, integrated schools and decent housing during the 1963 March on Washington.

Overnight, the resources and talents that could be brought to bear on rental agencies, realtors, mortgage lenders, and others who abided by one set of rules for whites and another for minority groups exploded exponentially.

On Sept. 20, friends and supporters of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, the now robust enterprise that launched the Havens case, will gather at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of passage of the Fair Housing Act, the growth of HOME to a thriving, multitentacled enterprise rooting out housing discrimination across Virginia, and the contributions of Barbara Wurtzel Rabin, the group's tenacious first executive director and the inspiration behind the Havens case.

The event marks also the launching of a $1.5 million campaign in Rabin's name to fund attacks on systemic housing bias.

If regional statistics on racial and economic integration in housing continue to disappoint, and they do, such numbers would likely be far worse were it not for the group's advocacy — counseling first-time buyers on improving their credit scores, helping financially struggling families escape foreclosure, challenging cases of overt housing discrimination and exposing the myriad ways in which local zoning ordinances and state policies may intentionally or unintentionally trap the poor in ghettos of despair.

click to enlarge The first three executive directors of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, were Barbara Rabin, Connie Chamberlin and Kent Willis. - HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES MADE EQUAL OF VIRGINIA, INC.
  • Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc.
  • The first three executive directors of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, were Barbara Rabin, Connie Chamberlin and Kent Willis.

Imperfect as the overall housing picture may be, HOME's contributions to fighting systemic injustice and improving tens of thousands of lives create a success story worth telling. Gloria Mitchell, a former state Board of Nursing official who almost lost her Prince George County home last year due to a series of spiraling personal and family crises, tells one such narrative.

The group's persistence in helping her secure a mortgage loan modification "changed me as a person," she says. "These people have let me know there is still good on this earth."

For a 5-foot wisp of a woman, Barbara Wurtzel Rabin packed a mighty wallop. Her power came less from brute force than from marked intelligence and fierce commitment.

"She was unrelenting, and at the same time, a kind and easy to work with person," says Jean Boone, now publisher of the Richmond Free Press and an ally in the early push to establish a fair housing organization in Richmond.

In the 1970s, the petite, brown-eyed Rabin "was the center of the universe for HOME," adds Kent Willis, who succeeded her as the group's second director and later led the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for a quarter century. "Everything revolved around her. She was one of those rare people with the ability to take an idea and implement it."

Rabin moved to Richmond in the mid-1960s with her first husband, Alan Wurtzel, a scion of the Circuit City family, and their three children. Alan became vice president of legal affairs and, soon afterward, chief executive of the emerging electronics giant. Barbara finished up work on a doctorate in political science and set about promoting several forward-thinking ideas.

In Richmond, as nationally, the 1960s and early '70s were a time of deep social upheaval as communities grappled with school integration, busing orders and the ongoing fruits of a civil rights revolution. Dissatisfied with the educational options for her children, Rabin helped spearhead creation of a model public school, John B. Cary School in Richmond's Carillon neighborhood, featuring a racially balanced student population. And, inspired by earlier involvements in the Washington area, she began pressing for an organization that would tackle housing discrimination.

An initial vision for HOME, which started in 1971, was to enforce fair housing laws through a rigorous program involving undercover teams of black and white testers. After creating a comprehensive list of major apartment complexes, the group examined rental policies by sending first a black applicant and then a white applicant with almost identical, fake résumés to the rental offices, usually on the same day.

Critics fumed about entrapment. But HOME officials — stunned by the regularity with which black applicants were turned away due to an alleged lack of vacancies, only to have white applicants shown empty apartments a few hours later — were undeterred. Later, when the program expanded to home sales, black and white purchasers were routinely steered to different neighborhoods.

"Most agents were as polite to black as white testers," Willis recalled, "but they didn't show them as many houses or spend as much time with them."

Into that fractious climate, Paul Coles arrived. The fact that he had been discriminated against by the Colonial Court Apartments, owned by Havens Realty, was almost an open-and-shut case. Federal District Court Judge D. Dortch Warriner ruled in his favor and ordered Havens to both compensate Coles and mend its ways.

click to enlarge Former HOME executive director Barbara Rabin - HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES MADE EQUAL OF VIRGINIA, INC.
  • Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc.
  • Former HOME executive director Barbara Rabin

But Rabin, who saw a larger potential in the case, wanted more. Waiting for authentic apartment renters or home buyers willing to endure the long and potentially costly rounds of a legal case could be excruciatingly slow business. Meanwhile, countless scores of black people were being discriminated against on an almost daily basis, she knew.

Rabin believed that fair housing organizations themselves should have the right to bring lawsuits in such cases, and so the list of plaintiffs in Havens had included not only Coles and the two testers who confirmed the discrimination, Sylvia Coleman, who was black, and Kent Willis who was white, but HOME itself. In Warriner's opinion, only Coles had legal standing to sue. The organization appealed.

In a unanimous, 9-0 opinion, issued on Feb. 24, 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with HOME, recognizing the injury to both Coleman and to the organization. When steering practices impair a group's housing counseling and referral services and drain resources, "there can be no question that the organization has suffered the requisite injury in fact," the court said.

In that moment, the legal landscape shifted. "Without the Havens ruling, fair housing organizations would have been restricted to pursuing individual cases of actual discrimination, a much more difficult task," says historian Richard Rothstein, author of "The Color of Law: a Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America," in an email exchange.

Vanessa Ruiz, the young lawyer who argued HOME's position before the high court, now a senior judge on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, puts compelling numbers to the claim. Lest anyone doubt its impact, according to her research, Havens has been cited more than 7,000 times in some 1,600 judicial opinions in the intervening years, she said in a taped interview to be shown at the Sept. 20 celebration.

click to enlarge HOME educational brochures. - HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES MADE EQUAL OF VIRGINIA, INC.
  • Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc.
  • HOME educational brochures.

Seismic shocks roiled the Richmond real estate community in the wake of Havens and the ascent of HOME.

"This was brutally hard work. You had 98 percent of the community saying, 'Go crawl back in your hole,'" recalls Philip Davidson, a former vice-president at the Bank of Virginia who chaired the group's board for a period during the era. His boss at the bank fielded regular calls of complaint about Davidson's fair housing work.

"I was manipulated and lied to by extraordinarily prominent people," Davidson says. "Their way of life was at risk."

For some, subsequent court decisions only accelerated the alarm. Among numerous legal victories won by the group in the post-Havens years, two stand out: Saunders v. General Services Corp. and HOME v. Nationwide Insurance Co. The former, focused on advertising discrimination, began under Rabin's leadership and ended in 1987, four years after she departed to pursue a law degree at the University of Virginia.

A federal district judge found that General Services, which operated 14 apartment complexes in the Richmond area, had fraudulently violated an agreement with HOME to use an Equal Housing Opportunity logo in its advertising. It also had violated the Fair Housing Act through "the virtual absence of black models" in its promotional literature, the judge held.

In one striking piece of evidence, an employee had written "should we use blacks in this arena?" next to a picture of a swimming pool in a prospective advertising brochure. A line connected the question to an answer, "Yes. (Not in water ...)"

A decade later, the fair housing organization made national headlines when a Richmond circuit court jury ordered the behemoth Nationwide Insurance Co. to pay $100.5 million in damages, a record punishment, based on its redlining of the city's black neighborhoods.

The term redlining had grown out of a New Deal institution that used color-coded maps to rate neighborhoods for mortgage loan risk. The most affluent merited green. Blue and yellow denoted desirable and declining. And red was reserved for neighborhoods deemed most at risk of mortgage default. Virtually all African American neighborhoods — even relatively affluent ones such as Richmond's Jackson Ward — were colored red.

According to testimony in the Nationwide case, the insurance company often issued more costly and inferior policies in black neighborhoods, or refused coverage altogether. After the insurance company appealed and the matter went back and forth through state courts, HOME and Nationwide arrived at a $17.5 million settlement, far less but still a clarion call for change within the insurance industry.

Laura Lafayette, chief executive of the Richmond Association of Realtors, began work there a few years before the Nationwide decision. At the time, she says, "HOME was talked about as Darth Vader by some people." Critics, she believes, "were operating from a place of fear." Over time, in part through Lafayette's prompting, the organizations have become far more collegial.

"As an organization, we are not going to condone in any way folks engaging in unfair housing practices," she says. Lafayette credits the housing group with helping educate the housing community on problems that previously went unrecognized by many.

"They have been elegant and eloquent in speaking truth to power," she says.

Legal victories alone do not account for such accolades. Over almost five decades, thousands of low-income Richmonders have been instructed on the ins-and-outs of home buying through the group's counseling programs, numerous foreclosures have been forestalled, housing down-payment assistance from state and local governments has been administered, and conscious efforts have been made to move low-income families into middle-class neighborhoods where poor children have a better chance to thrive.

My'Shanniece Tabron is among the beneficiaries. The 30-year-old, single mother of two boys recently spent about a year living in shelters and with family after an auto-immune disease caused her to lose her job and then her apartment. Even when she produced a federal housing voucher, many apartment complexes would not rent to her because of her eviction history.

A HOME counselor "talked to me about my credit, my goals, what's most important to me," says Tabron, a trim, poised woman seated in the immaculate living room of the apartment she rented last December near Virginia Center Commons with the group's help. "We talked about what got me into this situation and what could get me out."

click to enlarge My’Shanniece Tabron, 30, shown with her children Zyki Tabron, 13, and Dinz Tabron, 10, calls HOME “a turning point” in helping her settle into a stable apartment complex with access to a good elementary school. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • My’Shanniece Tabron, 30, shown with her children Zyki Tabron, 13, and Dinz Tabron, 10, calls HOME “a turning point” in helping her settle into a stable apartment complex with access to a good elementary school.

Like many clients, Tabron speaks effusively of the impact. Now settled in a stable apartment complex with access to a good elementary school, "HOME was that turning point where I got a hand up from the darkness," she says.

What the group's research and policy director, Brian Koziol, knows is how far the region has to go to make stories like Tabron's commonplace. Nowhere, for instance, is the importance of racially and economically integrated housing more evident than in public education. Numerous studies have shown that moving poor children into middle-class school districts can be the key to their academic success.

Yet, Koziol's research augurs badly for such transitions. A standard measure of residential segregation — known as the dissimilarity index, technically, the percentage of one racial group that would have to move into an area to create an even racial distribution with a second group — suggests that Richmond neighborhoods were more racially segregated in 2015, the most recent measure, than in 1990.

Given how closely poverty and race entwine in America, highly segregated, poor neighborhoods are a prescription for the sort of public schools prevalent in the city: overwhelmingly African American or Hispanic, disproportionately poor and too often underperforming in academic achievement. Housing remains an undeniably colossal component in that equation.

Despite HOME's successes, "we are talking about overcoming generational and systemic discrimination," Koziol says. "We're pushing a boulder up a hill."

Heather Mullins Crislip, HOME's current president and chief executive, hopes that the Barbara Wurtzel Rabin fund will help shoulder the load.
Rabin's three children are launching the fund in honor of their 85-year-old mother, now widowed after the death of her second husband two years ago and living in a continuum-of-care facility outside Philadelphia. About 15 years ago, Rabin — then practicing law in Boston — began to experience the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, daughter Sharon Wurtzel says.

"She dealt with it like everything else — very brave, very practical."

The family will seed the fund with a $150,000 gift that can grow, based on matching donations, to $400,000.

The fund's initial goal of $1.5 million will "allow us to support at least one large, systemic investigation every year or pursue cases that would set important precedent in fair housing," Crislip says. While the organization annually brings dozens of fair housing cases benefitting individuals, the goal of the Rabin fund is to tackle more complex, expensive challenges with potential beneficiaries in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Examples might include current litigation brought by a national alliance of fair housing and civil rights groups, including HOME, against Fannie Mae, Deutsche Bank and others, alleging that the mortgage lenders purposely kept up foreclosed properties in white neighborhoods better than those in African-American and Latino census tracks.

A second example might be the sort of partnership agreement negotiated last year between HOME and Wells Fargo Bank. After the group took the results — never publicly disclosed — of an investigation into lending practices in African-American neighborhoods to the lender, Wells Fargo agreed to provide $3 million over four years to support various educational and foreclosure-prevention programs and $1 million over four years in down-payment assistance to low- and moderate-income first-time homebuyers.

click to enlarge HOME’s current president and chief executive is Heather Mullins Crislip. - HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES MADE EQUAL OF VIRGINIA, INC.
  • Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc.
  • HOME’s current president and chief executive is Heather Mullins Crislip.

Supporters hope the Rabin fund will take the structure built by HOME over the last half century to a new level. As they know, housing segregation and discrimination were entrenched in Richmond and in America over decades, even centuries, the product of scores of deliberate governmental and corporate decisions, as well an individual choices.
No one is more cognizant of the challenge of dismantling those polices and attitudes than those who live it year by year. Rome cannot be built — or unbuilt — in a day.

"We're talking about generationally changing the course of people's lives," Koziol says. S

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