The Housing Equality Center got its start in 1956, before the days of fair housing legislation.

At the time, civil rights activist Margaret Collins founded a real estate firm named Friends Suburban Housing, Inc. to help African Americans gain fair access to housing. Meanwhile, another core group of community advocates founded the Southeast Delaware County Area Committee of Friends Suburban Housing. The Committee actively lobbied for fair housing legislation, writing to their legislators, speaking out to the community, publishing public service announcements in local newspapers, writing letters to the editor and even appealing directly to President Lyndon B. Johnson. These individuals not only spoke out against discrimination, they urged neighbors to welcome African Americans into their communities and embrace integration, even at great risk to their own personal safety.

In April of 1968, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, also known as the Fair Housing Act, was signed into law. Now with legal backing to support its goals, the Committee increased its efforts over the years, along with the service area in which it operated. As a result, the Committee changed its name several times: to the Committee for Democracy in Housing of Lansdowne and Vicinity in 1957, the Lansdowne-Upper Darby Fair Housing Council in 1976, the Fair Housing Council of Delaware County in 1984 and to the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia in 1992.

In 2014, the name changed to the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania. While fighting racial discrimination has been an important focus since 1956, today’s efforts extend to combating all types of discrimination, including discrimination against people with disabilities, families with children, senior citizens, refugees and immigrants.

Margaret Collins’ civil rights work inspired what is today the oldest fair housing organization in the United States, the Housing Equality Center.

Margaret H. Collins, a Quaker and a native of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, was a pioneer in fighting housing discrimination and lobbying for fair housing legislation. The daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia paper manufacturer, Collins was born in 1908 and educated at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of California at Berkeley and Bryn Mawr College, where she did graduate work in social research. In 1956, before the days of fair housing legislation, Collins founded a real estate firm named Friends Suburban Housing, Inc., with the mission of selling homes without regard to color.

Margaret Collins faced immense challenges in her endeavor to promote freedom in housing. She often showed houses in all-white neighborhoods to African American families at night, to avoid harassment from neighbors. She attempted to join the Main Line Board of Realtors three times in order to access a comprehensive list of properties for sale in the area, but was rejected each time. Convinced that the rejection was based on the color of her clients, she sued the board for illegal restraint of trade and won.

Although Margaret Collins was highly regarded as a pioneer in advocating for fair housing within the region, she never regarded herself as such, stating that, “I wasn’t any pioneer—the black person was the pioneer.”

A tireless advocate for racial equality, she continued her efforts until her death in 2006.

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