Michelle Santantonio’s speech at the
50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act Gala
October 3, 2018 –Remarks on occasion of LIHS’ (Long Island Housing Services, Inc.) celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968), Villa Lombardi’s, Holbrook NY. by Michelle Santantonio, Executive Director Emeritus
Good evening. Where to begin? First I’d like to say thank you to the dedicated Staff members present and past that so often go above and beyond, to our Board members present and past that stretch themselves in support of Longs Island Housing Services (LIHS) and its Mission, to our sponsors and donors, fellow honorees and all of you that made your way here tonight. What Carol indicated is true – I agreed to be an honoree ONLY on condition that at least a few of my more worthy colleagues could share in being specially distinguished. The national scope and impact of their individual and organizational accomplishments and their deep well of knowledge generously shared is astounding! It is very exciting and rewarding to be here with you all-the National FH Alliance, Lisa Rice, LCCRUL and their attorneys like Joe Rich and Tom Silverstein here tonight, Fred Freiberg, an early leader and trainer in use of testing while serving the DOJ to his current role as ED for FHJC in NYC, and Diane Houk, with her incredible history and savvy in litigation for the government at a time it worked to protect civil rights to her evolving to private practice at Emery Celli, Brinckerhoff and Abady. Each have been leaders and have offered their time, talent, counsel and insights to boost our capabilities to enforce the law and help LIHS to achieve positive results in systemic litigation on LI, about which I hope you’ll hear at least some bits today from them! I so appreciate Ahmad Ali’s song- Standing On the Shoulders – so relevant to today’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act- and to those that have promoted compliance through advocacy, education & enforcement. I’m also honored that the Classical trio is playing for us this evening, thanks especially to Carol and her daughter Leiann!
If you couldn’t hear the speech in person, there is still an opportunity to honor Michelle and LIHS.
I’m honored to be here with Janet Hanson, the agency’s Director from 1973-1987 and early Board volunteers and stalwart members Barbara Cromeyn, Harriet Varady and former staff member Jeanne Baum, as well as Harlan Greene**, son of founding member (Claire Greene) who volunteered from the earliest days, and was President, as well as Joe Greene, Jr. who stepped up to Board service after Claire’s untimely death in 1991. Janet was my 1st mentor and supervisor when I began at [then] SHS in 1990 working together on the agency’s very first two HUD FHIP grants which allowed for the recruitment & training & use of testers and evidence derived, with the testing often the most critical element in finding and developing proof when housing discrimination –so often politely and subtly practiced – occurs. Being part of the national fair housing movement has been quite a journey for me, beginning with indelible marks connecting childhood experiences and observations of a remarkable time in this country- the ‘60’s.
I’d like to share a little of my personal history, as it sparked the passion that drove me to leave my secure job as Investigator at the Human Rights Commission to accept work in LI’s unique agency – then known as Suffolk Housing Services. As a child, I lived with my parents and two older sisters in what seemed to me to be a large one bedroom apartment in Flushing on a block that included two large apartment buildings, across the street from single family residences, one block from Depot Road and the train station (yes- 5 in a 1 br.- but I never felt overcrowded! & close to public transportation). We weren’t wealthy, but to celebrate my sister’s 9th BD, the family went to a movie- Witness for the Prosecution. Though I was only 7 at the time, it had a big impact on me, that and years of watching Perry Mason led me to obtain my Investigator’s license! When I was much older, my aunt who’d studied law, informed me that she’d helped my parents identify the apartment house we lived in – I learned that it was a government subsidized complex developed for those having served in some capacity during WWII (yes- “affordable housing”!). The low rent, combined incomes and thrifty ways allowed my parents to save enough for a 3 br. home purchased in 1958 in Nesconset, which included 2 1/2 acres, to help fulfill my father’s dream of a small family farm. We raised rabbits, geese, and a variety of vegetables and fruits, ultimately specializing in tomatoes. My sisters and I were the laborers, we helped clear and cultivate the fields, plant, feed, weed, water and protect the tomatoes which we picked, packed and sold to local markets, delis and restaurants. The work was a 7-day/week venture-from early spring until late fall- no vacations (except school time!) and only very rare, all too brief visits to the beach were allowed in the evening. My sisters and I welcomed school and the colder months when our responsibilities were reduced to household chores. It was in this situation that I began investigating children’s rights- and found that family farm labor was exempt. I also learned the value of reliable help. My father’s farming was his 2nd job. He worked the graveyard shift at CI State Hospital; my mother worked there in the day shift; he drove her to work and picked her up. At crucial times, my father would supplement his labor force, gaining doctor’s permission to bring home a couple of patients, helpers that worked alongside us in the fields. They seemed to always enjoy being out in the world away from the hospital! We made and shared substantial and delicious lunch times – far superior than hospital fare! In this way, I came to work with Freddie, an African American man who helped us pick and carry the tomatoes from the backfield to the barn for packing. Another great helper was Frances, a white woman who helped us weed and water. My father also befriended his Mexican co-worker we knew as Mr. Melendez; in the summers his nephew or cousin would be a temporary helper, along with a couple of kids – teenage boys my father found with time on their hands -and a couple of times my girlfriends that were earning pocket money. Our friends were not allowed to visit us in the daytime, unless they were willing to work! Chatting and hands in pockets were not tolerated. I learned quickly that skin color, disability, gender, ethnicity and age are not predictors of how productive or amiable a worker may be!
My parents would watch the nightly news, and I along with them, most memorably Walter Cronkite and John Daly- with People Places and Things. My junior high & high school experiences included the 1963 assassination of JFK, the Beatles, later watching with horror, disbelief and wonderment as federal troops, police with attack dogs and weapons hosed down and clubbed peaceful protesters seeking to assert their right to vote. My Smithtown school was nearly an all-white faculty, staff and students. We had 1 black teacher, Ralph Watkins, who headed our H.S.’s Human Relations League, which I joined and became part of a mentoring program at SUNY SB; helping young kids to read. Our whole school had maybe 5 or 6 black students. Seeing the news and what was happening made me feel sick and when I would see these classmates, I was overcome/my jugular vein would pulsate in a scary way. I heard news of young people-Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney: killed by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob in Mississippi. Despite 2 trials and tons of evidence, the all-white juries failed to convict. The three young civil rights workers were working to register black, the local Klan didn’t tolerate the idea of blacks voting, & exercising that precious democratic right. Also in news- Apartheid in South Africa- my 9th grade SS teacher, Al Allmaras, imposed on me the challenge to compare the U.S. with South Africa. Then the 1964 passage of amended, strengthened Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act, addressing public accommodation, government services and employment, at great costs of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the peaceful demonstrations and marches, connections between poverty, segregation, disparities so eloquently drawn by MLK. … In 1966, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the buildup of what seemed an endless, useless war, civilian and young recruits’, enlistees’ and draftees’ deaths, destruction and crippling poverty in Vietnam. The growing awareness of these news events – the popularity and controversy of MLK’s poor people’s campaign, championing labor unions, links made to assert the right to access basic public services, militarism, racism and poverty. All were part. On April 4, 1968, the horror of the assassination of Dr. King- non-violence and inclusion were so threatening?? The aftermath of dissent and civil unrest- the unanimous Congressional passage of the Fair Housing Act signed into law on April 11- a week later, as Pres. Johnson sought to appease the country’s emotional and physical upheavals- the deep-seated, too long suffered denials leading to unprecedented “civil unrest” erupted into violence throughout the U.S. My home situation had changed earlier that year– my sisters had left home to escape, the eldest at 18, the other after HS graduation by way of a residential nursing school program. When my father was hospitalized for open heart surgery the day after Thanksgiving in 1967, we didn’t realize it would be his last time at home. He passed away on 1/4/68 in the hospital. Tomato operations were concluded. I got a p/t job and had acquired responsibility to drive my mother to work, until she could obtain her driver’s license. When I finished HS- I didn’t really have a clue as to education or career goals. My father’s idea was that higher education was not too useful for females, but if so- teaching, nursing or secretarial work. I was afraid to leave home, leave my widowed mother alone, afraid to attend a huge school. I enrolled in SCCC, studying languages and Community Services. In 1969 I left school and started working full time in CI Psych. Ctr., a small, new, progressive experimental setting – with programs designed to return patients to community in 6-8 weeks. Our patients ranged in age from 16-80, and represented a wide range of mental illnesses. Through this job, I met and married, became a parent, and ultimately returned to school p/t and work. For 3 summers, I worked in Staff Development at SCDSS, Coordinating the SWTP for disadvantaged youth. I learned of an open competitive CS test for Human Rights Investigator position; the job description struck a deep chord. I was 1 of top 3 on the list for hiring and was ultimately offered the job to begin on 11/28/77. Most of my work involved investigating employment discrimination, but also some housing, public accommodation and education cases. In employment situations, there may often be evidence to gather through witnesses and records- not so in housing. Witnesses are rare, documents, if any, could be more easily hidden or destroyed.
It was through that job I became acquainted with Suffolk Housing Services. In the mid 80’s, the Press highlighted a trial being held in Federal Court involving 2 black Air Traffic controllers- Futrell and Grayson v Rotundi. The victims/Plaintiffs were 2 women that – unbeknownst to each other, had both been denied available housing in their search for a rental in Patchogue at The Watergate Apts. SHS’ then E.D. Janet Hanson had led an investigation using testers to prove that whites seeking apartments were encouraged to apply, while blacks were lied to about availability and steered away. I was familiar with SHS, as I occasionally called to get info about Tenant’s Rights and make referrals for my HRC clients. This trial was breakthrough for me, as at SCHRC we had no testing resources, complaints were filed using government administrative procedures and, with good evidence – we were usually successful. BUT- housing was rarely at issue, as we dealt mostly with employment and, in those days, also claims of police abuse. I was able to sit in on part of that historic trial where I met Janet in person, along with Lewis Steele – one of the attorneys, along with Richard Bellman that handled many of SHS’ related FH cases in those early years. With the critical evidence derived through testing, the jury found in favor of the Plaintiffs, and an historically large award was made to compensate the two victims. This meeting led me to think differently about the work I was doing. Then, in 1988 I was invited by SHS’ new ED, David Berenbaum to provide a FH training he was organizing for government and agency reps. Subsequently, when competitive grant funding became available through HUD’s Fair Housing Initiative Program (FHIP) in 1990, David, with Janet present, interviewed me and I was subsequently offered the job to assist Janet (then as Consultant) with the agency’s 1st contract to recruit, train testers and utilize testing in investigations of housing discrimination claims. I’d completed an Assoc. Degree by then, and later enrolled in local universities and colleges for various courses and, through a Career Planning course, realized that I wanted to continue in the investigative, civil rights field, but in the capacity to decide on cases and how resources could be allocated. Lessons learned from so many investigations are ones that nourished me to continue putting energy into FH enforcement.
I’m afraid I’m out of allotted time, but I must also take this opportunity to thank my father-in-law, Alex Ames, as he is one of 3 people that encouraged me to ‘go for it’ when I debated in 1999 about ability to be LIHS’ Director. The other is a friend, Burr Taylor (retired to Maine in early ‘90s) with whom I volunteered for the Board of South Country Peace Group- and most especially, my husband Paul, who was supportive of my taking a huge pay cut from a long held government job with benefits, to explore investigative possibilities to address housing discrimination with a non-profit and its uncertainties. To his credit, he remained mostly understanding with all the long hours and frequent weekend interruptions caused by the demands of the agency. He also made dinner for us almost every night!
** I especially want to acknowledge the Greene family’s support, as it was through the racially discriminatory denial of their [initially] frustrated attempts to purchase a home in a new development in Smithtown that led to their involvement with organizing/volunteering for our private, non-profit Fair Housing agency.
I would like to end with guidance from James Baldwin’s words: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
As most of you probably well know, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion. In 1974, sex discrimination was outlawed, then in a major amendment in 1988, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and disability were added.
HUD regulations, resources, funding, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) all major concerns!!
If you couldn’t hear the speech in person, there is still an opportunity to honor Michelle and LIHS.
The evening also had comments from our other Fair Housing honorees about their work with Michelle, their own work, and the precarious state of Fair Housing at this time:
- Fred Freiberg, Executive Director, Fair Housing Justice Center
- Diane L. Houk, Esq., Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP
- Lisa Rice, President & CEO, National Fair Housing Alliance
- Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Fair Housing & Community Development Project by Thomas Silverstein, Esq.