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Philadelphians Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act

Joseph Rey shares a story of how the Fair Housing Act could well have saved the lives of his family in 1973.

By Anthony SanFilippo

Joseph Rey woke up one Saturday morning intent on going outside and playing in his Hunting Park neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Except, he was told he wasn’t allowed to go outside and play. Not because he was being punished for something he had done, but rather because he was being sheltered for something terrible that had happened the night before.

Joseph wasn’t allowed outside because there was blood on the street in front of his house, the result of violence that had taken place overnight.

Joseph was five years old. The year was 1973. His neighborhood didn’t take kindly to ethnic diversity at the time. Joseph’s parents were Cuban. They fled their homeland in the 1960s to get away from the tyrannical rule of Fidel Castro and headed toward Philadelphia, where Joseph’s great uncle lived, looking for a better life.

But Joseph’s parents saw a neighborhood where it wasn’t necessarily good to be different. Racial tension was high. There were families living on his street who vehemently disliked one another.

That’s when Joseph’s father decided enough was enough and he needed to save up enough money to buy his first home. He was a 46-year-old immigrant. He had never owned a home before. But thanks to the Fair Housing Act, he was able to move his family from Hunting Park to the Olney section of Philadelphia in 1975.

Joseph was sad. He was leaving his friends, including the Santiago family who lived on his street.

Three months after the Reys left Hunting Park, the Santiago house was firebombed. Five people died, including four children – some of which were friends of Joseph Rey.

“When Joe was making his remarks, the place just came to a standstill and everyone had a chance to really take in what he was saying. It was powerful.”

Nearly 43 years later, Rey stood in front of the Philadelphia City Council and told that story. Now president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of REALTORS® (GPAR), Rey talked about how the Fair Housing Act could well have saved the lives of him and his family. Maybe they would have been the next target after the Santiago family in that Hunting Park neighborhood if his father was not afforded the opportunity to buy his first home in a different community.

“The gravity of his words at that City Council session was gripping,” said Matthew Braden, CEO of GPAR. “A City Council session is usually a beehive of activity, no matter who is speaking, but when Joe was making his remarks, the place just came to a standstill and everyone had a chance to really take in what he was saying. It was powerful.”

Rey was asked to speak at the City Council session, which took place last April, because Council was about to unanimously pass a resolution declaring April Fair Housing Month in Philadelphia and commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. The resolution was introduced by Councilman-at-large Allan Domb, who happens to be a member of GPAR.

Rey continued to tell stories about how diverse neighborhoods, now considered a highlighted staple of Philadelphia, was not something that was considered desirable as recently as 40 years ago.

“Fights and violence based upon race were common,” Rey told those in attendance in the packed Council chambers. “Korean street signs were torn down, bricks were thrown through our big picture window at a family gathering one summer because we were speaking another language.

“Later in life, I am proud to say that other language helped me sell many homes in that neighborhood, which is where I first started practicing real estate. I am proud to say most of my sales were to the protected classes of the Fair Housing Act we are now celebrating. In fact, that neighborhood, Olney, is now the most linguistically diverse in all of Pennsylvania. How ironic.”

At Philadelphia City Hall

This event, inside Philadelphia’s iconic City Hall, was the third in a trio of affairs in which GPAR participated in order to promote Fair Housing education and awareness and to also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.

The first focused on the LGBTQ community at a panel discussion hosted by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. The discussion took place last March and was facilitated by Sandy Smith, a popular journalist for Philadelphia Magazine.

“It was well-attended and there was a robust conversation,” Braden said. “People walked away with various nuggets to raise awareness or be better REALTORS®.”

The second was a workshop in April in which GPAR partnered with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) targeted specifically on commemorating the Fair Housing Act anniversary.

Held at Temple University’s Real Estate Institute, the crowd included REALTORS®, students in Temple’s Real Estate School as well as the general public.

The key note speaker was Melody Taylor from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The other speakers were Rue Landau, Executive Director, and Pamela Gwaltney, Deputy Director, of PCHR, and Beverly D. Chandran, a GPAR member. The discussion revolved around the Fair Housing Act, the dos and don’ts relating to fair housing and specific rules and regulations relating to Philadelphia’s Fair Housing Practice that has a wider implication and impact on fair housing.

“The city of Philadelphia is a beautiful mosaic of neighborhoods,” Braden said. “Those neighborhoods are different and unique because of our history of immigrants coming into our city to make a new life. The best thing about Philly is its diversity.

“While there are still challenges, it makes us rich and complex. We are a strong city with a backbone, and that’s why fair housing makes us stronger here. We may be imperfect, but we always have a want and desire to be better. Our diversity committee is vibrant and active and challenges our Association to be the best version of itself. We need to continue to embrace that diversity for the next 50 years, and beyond.”

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