AWARD: A Veteran of Fair Housing Wars

By Blanca A. Nieves

The year was 1965, when Lee Porter and her husband, Richard, were escorted by a Fair Housing Council official to a home in Bergenfield.

The young black couple had been looking in Bergen County for months. Most times, they were steered to segregated areas.

When they found a home they wanted in the predominantly white area, neighbors were abusive and tried to discourage them from buying.

"What really irked us was that my husband went to war and was wounded," Lee Porter said. "He graduated college. He had a high security clearance in order to work for the government. Yet, a Nazi or a gangster was treated better than we were treated. We could not realize the American dream because of our skin color."

The incident prompted Porter to change the system. During the past 30 years, she has worked tirelessly to combat bias and lobby for fair housing laws.

"Back then, we were in the heart of the Martin Luther King, Jr. era," she said. "I would have felt like a coward if we had backed down. I came into this as a victim. I was determined not to let this happen to others."

Porter went on to volunteer for the Fair Housing Council of Northern New Jersey and moved up to the ranks of executive director in 1971, a position she still holds. The council, which has 4,000 clients, also helps the homeless.

Porter is this week's recipient of The Record's Community Service Award, a tribute to her lifelong dedication to ending discrimination in housing and combating racism.

"Lee is feisty, hard-working, and determined to give everyone -- regardless of race, sex, handicap, or religion -- the opportunity to find the housing they choose and can afford," said Phyllis Kronick, a vice president of the Fair Housing Council's board of directors.

"If true integration in Bergen County is ever achieved, it will be because of people like Lee," said Kronick, who nominated Porter for the award. Porter has been instrumental in working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in starting oth er fair housing groups, Kronick said.

Porter still lives in that house on Bryne Place in Bergenfield. Sadly, she says, the situation hasn't changed much. Discrimination is not as overt as it was 30 years ago, it's just more subtle. Minorities trying to buy or rent housing in largely white suburbs still encounter difficulties, she said. In addition to blacks, the problem is found among other ethnic groups that discriminate against one another.

"What we see in this office is a reflection of society as a whole, where the degree of discrimination is in direct proportion to the color of your skin. We still have a lot of work to do to make things better."

Housing discrimination surveys conducted last year found that minorities that tried to obtain housing were discriminated against 75 percent of the time, Porter said. In Bergen County, the majority of the blacks are in Teaneck, Hackensack, and Englewood.

"Housing is the most important thing in a person's life," Porter said. "It determines his status, what schools his children go to, their quality of life.

"A good school means better education, a better education means a better salary, a better job, a better house, and the cycle goes around."

Porter was born in Brooklyn, one of four children of Arthur and Corrine Clinton. Her family and faith instilled in her the importance of helping others.

"We came from a conservative Roman Catholic upbringing and were taught that whatever you had, you could share. The church taught us about volunteerism, it came as a natural," she said.

Porter became involved in civil rights at age 14, when she joined the Catholic Interracial Council in New York.

"At the time, some public restaurants didn't serve people of color, so the Catholic groups would send blacks to these places to see if they were served. If they were not served, the Catholic group would ask why," she said.

While raising her children, the bespectacled, soft-spoken mother of three dedicated herself to helping others through scores of organizations, including the Girl Scouts, the League of Women Voters, and the National Association for the Advancement of Color ed People.

Today, her office is lined with awards from these organizations, including the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and the National Fair Housing Alliance for her efforts in promoting fair housing nationally.

One of her greatest accomplishments, she said, is having played a role in establishing the council's extensive network of resources and contacts.

"Through hard work, we were able to escape from that dingy storefront office staffed by volunteers -- with no funding -- and expand to where we are today -- with this large, professional staff."