Closed doors, closed minds persist

Megan Angelo

The King of Prussia Mall is blessed with a location that has made it a monument to capitalism. Situated just miles from the Main Line, the mall draws local customers who can afford to shop at its Versace, Movado and Brookstone franchises. It surely doesn’t take long for the residents of towns of Villanova, Wayne and Bryn Mawr to become desensitized to four-digit price tags; they live in an area where small homes start at around $400,000.

But with plenty of King of Prussia’s 373 stores catering to the average American income, it still appeals to spenders of all economic levels. And as the second largest mall in the United States, it draws plenty of tourists. Unlike most malls, King of Prussia feels more like a national attraction than a town hangout. Nothing about the mall caters to patrons in the neighborhood.

Except, perhaps, for a relatively inconspicuous advertisement on the opposite sides of several mall directories. “You want it. You can afford it,” it declares. “You’ll never see it.”

The advertisement is for the National Fair Housing Alliance, an organization that works to fight residential discrimination throughout the United States.

Termed “de facto segregation” in history textbooks, blocking people of certain ethnic backgrounds from the neighborhoods they want to live in appeared to fade with the beginning of the civil rights movement. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited racial discrimination from being a factor in real estate transactions. The legislature still stands, but residential discrimination has not been eliminated so much as it has been swept under the rug.

“Everyone knows that you can’t discriminate on the basis of race, or at least they should,” says Jim Berry, Director of the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia. Not everyone, however, realizes that housing discrimination isn’t a rarity – it’s unexpectedly rampant. In fact, according to a recent audit by the FHCSP, 50 percent of African-Americans interested in renting living spaces in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties were treated differently than the white people who inquired. In most cases, renters quoted higher prices, offered stricter policies and downplayed available apartments.

Furthermore the FHCSP recently filed a lawsuit against Prudential Insurance Company, as the corporation has allegedly been denying clients homeowners’ insurance based on their race. The fair housing councils in several cities, including Richmond, Toledo and Milwaukee, are in on the federal lawsuit, but the issue is especially controversial in Pennsylvania, where purchasing housing without homeowners’ insurance is virtually impossible.

Berry stresses that, at least in this area, investigations into home sales uncover few problems. Explorations into renting yield more troubling results. And the prejudices have spread to include people with disabilities and, astonishingly, families. According to Berry, renters are often reluctant to accept single women with children or families. Yet, racial discrimination is still the most instinctual, ingrained and insurmountable form of housing injustice.

The notoriously affluent Main Line, home to many of the most successful professionals of Philadelphia, is no exception. Lower Merion Township, located several miles from Villanova, was the subject of a recent audit that discovered 40 percent of African Americans who applied for rental housing were treated less favorably than whites.

On the Main Line, in Pennsylvania and across the United States, one stubborn sentiment is delicately impeding the progress of equality: certain people should not be allowed to catch up. It’s an unsettling principle, especially in light of the fact that while our own citizens are still struggling to claim basic social opportunities, thousands of people are pouring into the United States each day armed with little more than a firm belief in the American dream.

As those on the inside looking out, we should be flattered. For even though America has harbored its share of ugliness over the past few centuries, the beauty of the American dream has endured. To many people of every nationality in the world, the United States is still a land of endless potential. With international tensions constantly looming over the country, we can no longer promise total invincibility. With the gap between rich and poor expanding rapidly, we can no longer promise total equality. But what we can and should promise to every one of our neighbors, in return for their unfailing trust, is the chance to earn a place to call their home.