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Review: Recent Fair Housing exhibit at Black History Museum and Cultural Center told a story worth remembering 

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Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made discrimination in housing illegal, it provided no means for the government to enforce it.

That was unacceptable to a passionate group of Richmonders, Black and white, who founded Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) in September 1971 as a way to make America’s promise of equal treatment a reality and ensure that every person had the opportunity to live in the neighborhood of their choice.

“HOME and 50 Years of Fair Housing in Virginia,” recently at the Black History Museum, told the story of how HOME has waged the good fight against discriminatory housing practices in Richmond. One of the group’s founders, James L. Hecht, came to Richmond from New York, where he had been the chairman of the board of the Buffalo Fair Housing organization. His book, “Because It is Right: Integration in Housing” laid out Buffalo’s fight, taking its title from President John F. Kennedy’s argument to Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act: “Not merely for reasons of economic efficiency, world diplomacy and domestic tranquility but, above all, because it is right.”

The exhibit documented how the ambitious members of HOME were instrumental in changing the housing narrative, not just in Richmond, but all over the country.

The organization’s first executive director, Barbara Wurtzel Rabin, designed and implemented a series of 59 tests on apartment complexes in mostly white neighborhoods. Both white and Black couples with equal qualifications were sent to apply for rentals, but all the Black couples were turned away for one reason or another. These results led HOME to the U.S. Supreme Court hearing Havens Realty Company v. Coleman, ultimately deciding that HOME and its testers had standing to sue under the Fair Housing Act. The verdict set a precedent and expanded fair housing enforcement nationwide. “It’s considered the single most important fair housing case ever decided,” says HOME’s Director of Communications Mike Burnette. “It’s still used in most cases today.”

Richmond continued its precedent setting cases with Sanders v. General Services Corporation to address discrimination in advertising. GSC’s advertising brochures showed photos of 300 people, with only six who were minorities and four of those were sitting on a school bus, not actually shown at the apartment complex. During the trial’s discovery process, a pool photo came to light with Black swimmers in it. The photo had been marked, “No Blacks in pool.” The national press soon picked up on the case and within a year there was a national initiative to represent minorities in advertising.

Connie Chambelin, HOME’s third president, set out to challenge discrimination in homeowners’ insurance underwriting. Stunning proof of redlining Black neighborhoods by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, one of the largest companies in the homeowners’ insurance industry, resulted in a landmark victory for HOME, led by leading attorney Tim Kaine. Changes included discriminatory practices being held to be legally and morally wrong, but also proven to be harmful for the industry’s profitability. Urban residents with the potential to be good customers got increased access to homeowners’ insurance, while the industry reaped the benefits of expanding their business into new markets.

For those looking for a way to not only be involved in the community but to play an active role in promoting justice and equality on a local scale, HOME still uses testers.

“Testing is one of the most vital tools we use to enforce fair housing laws and uncover illegal housing discrimination,” says Burnette. “Tests allow us to uncover discrimination that may be difficult to recognize and hold housing industry professionals accountable for the discrimination.” A test is typically conducted by sending two people with similar profiles and housing needs, but with different protected class statuses such as gender or race, to the same available housing unit to see if they’re treated differently because of their protected class status. Without tests, most housing discrimination goes undetected. Interested parties can apply on HOME’s website.

The recent exhibit made clear that HOME’s efforts are not all racially based. Fair housing means everyone regardless of race, color, origin, religion, sex, disability, familial status, age 55+, their source of funds, sexual orientation, gender identification or military status deserves the home they can afford, regardless of location.

“Life options shouldn’t be based on your zip code,” Burnette says, referring to schools, green spaces and even grocery stores. “Housing and stability make all other dreams possible.”

“HOME and 50 Years of Fair Housing in Virginia,” ran through April 15 at the Black History Museum, 122 W. Leigh Street., blackhistorymuseum.org, HOMEofva.org.

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