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Pittsburgh Community Commemorates Fair Housing Act

Local REALTORS® co-host panel discussion about fair housing at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh.

By Anthony SanFilippo

The first fair housing law established in the United States was in New York City in the mid-1950s – years before the Fair Housing Act existed.

Following suit, in 1958 was Pittsburgh with the second law.

So, when the city of Pittsburgh partnered with the REALTORS® Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh (RAMP) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Fair Housing Act in April, you could excuse the steel city if it was quietly celebrating its own 60th anniversary – for being a city ahead of its time.

“Fair Housing makes our communities stronger. It makes our industries stronger. It lifts up not only the REALTOR® communities but the communities we work, play and celebrate in every day,” said RAMP President David Dean. “It not only makes us stronger, but it makes us better. It makes us diverse. And here in Pittsburgh it has been going on longer than almost anywhere.”

As part of the commemoration, RAMP along with the City and the Pittsburgh office of the Human Relations Commission (HRC) and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh co-hosted a panel discussion about fair housing at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh.

A capacity crowd was on hand for the event, which had a panel featuring Dean as well as representatives of the Pittsburgh HRC, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Urban League of Pittsburgh.

The keynote speaker at the event was F. Alvin Pearman, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Urban Education, University of Pittsburgh.

“We had been working on a celebration we wanted to do on April 11th because that’s the date President Johnson signed the legislation in 1968,” said RAMP Executive Vice President John Petrack. “We had come up with a lot of ideas. But with David being on the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing in the City of Pittsburgh Committee –  a Mayoral-appointed task force –  along with the president of the Pittsburgh HRC, they said, ‘why don’t we work together to have an event with a panel structure and keynote speaker?’

“That’s how this all came together. And when they decided they were looking for an opening act of sorts, we suggested sharing the video created by the National Association of REALTORS® commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.”

During the panel discussion, there were three very important questions asked:

  • Now that 50 years have passed, are we better off, or worse off than we were when we passed the Fair Housing Act?
  • In 50 years what will fair housing look like in Pittsburgh?
  • How have we, or our group had an impact on fair housing both nationally and locally?

“This really gave us a chance to talk, among ourselves, as if the room full of people wasn’t there,” Dean said. “It was almost magic, and in the end, we all decided we would meet semi-regularly, because we felt we could impact the city and fair housing even more after that discussion.”

Each member of the panel had a specific forte that was shared and at the end of the discussion, the audience got to ask questions, and a significant number of questions were directed toward Dean.

“REALTORS® get a bad rap when discussing fair housing,” he said. “When I was appointed to the Committee, there were people who were uneasy about a REALTOR® being on a fair housing-oriented task force. But, in the end, people were saying to me that they didn’t realize how much of a true partner they have in REALTORS® -both in the local and national associations.

“REALTORS® are committed to fair housing and in multiple ways. People were asking me questions because they wanted to know what REALTORS® do to support fair housing and if they work with a REALTOR® what they should expect.”

Pearman’s presentation focused on the economic and social impact that fair housing has had on disparate communities – African-Americans, Hispanics, the disabled – and he showed how fair housing impacts educational opportunities to families.

Using census information and other data, Pearman honed it in to make it a local issue to Pittsburgh. He pointed to the challenges fair housing has faced in Pittsburgh. He showed a map the banks used to use when determining how to give out loans.

“Redlining” was a process instituted by the federal government in an effort to try to revive the housing market following the Great Depression.

Rather than foster the concept of integrated neighborhoods, the government encouraged mortgage lenders to withhold credit from certain urban neighborhoods and immigrant communities.

Banks and federal agencies marked maps of the neighborhoods where mortgages should be withheld with red ink.

Later, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) prevented many foreclosures by refinancing hundreds of thousands of existing mortgages.

However, the HOLC took redlining to a whole new level.

It created “Residential Security Maps” that graded neighborhoods based on investment risk and credit worthiness. Areas thought to carry the least risk of defaulting on a mortgage got graded “A” and were colored in green on the map, while those neighborhoods considered “hazardous” and more high-risk got a “D” grade and were colored red.

Appraisers at the time, let cultural biases dictate the rating of certain neighborhoods. Communities that were predominantly African-American were given a “D” grade regardless of the condition of the homes in the neighborhood, essentially quarantining those neighborhoods and creating housing segregation.

“Many people had never seen one of these [maps] before,” Dean said. “But this was how redlining occurred. [Pearman] took the audience on a journey – showing that there were huge strides taken forward, but that there still were impediments that remain and that they are systemic.”

But the most interesting moments of the event occurred prior to the panel discussion, when a press conference was held to unveil a project that the Committee has working on for four years – a comprehensive fair housing package the mayor and city can use to address fair housing in the future.

“With the unveiling of that document and the Mayor’s remarks, we were excited about the positions the city would undertake to address fair housing holistically,” Dean said. “The economic, social and environmental concerns of fair housing.”

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