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Scott Gehl, the longtime executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, was only 10 years old when a group of local religious leaders and civil rights activists decided to formally take on the issue of fair housing in the Buffalo Niagara region.

The organization, which got its start in 1963, will host a 50th anniversary gala tonight at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, at which it will honor volunteers and supporters, including Janet Meiselman, who in the mid-1980s was a volunteer tester assisting in investigations for reports of housing discrimination.

“Home began at a time before it was illegal to discriminate in housing,” said Gehl, who has been at the helm of the organization for 31 years.

“I joined HOME in 1981 and was a Buffalo councilman at the time. One of the things I wanted to do was to enact a fair housing ordinance in Buffalo,” he said.

Unfortunately for Gehl, he got to serve only one year on the Common Council, having been elected to fill a vacancy after Eugene Fahey left the University District seat to become an at-large member of the Council.

“In that single year on the Council, I did not succeed in getting a fair housing law passed. Still, I had some background in housing and community planning, and also in community organizing,” Gehl said.

While HOME started out as an all-volunteer organization, by the late 1970s it had garnered enough financial support to maintain a three-person staff, that operated on an annual budget of $55,000.

“The organization has remained a relatively small one over the years, but I also think that it has had an outsized impact over the years,” Gehl said.

One of the organization’s most significant achievements has been its role in the desegregation of Buffalo’s largest landlord, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. In 1986, the authority had 27 residential developments, nine of which were 90 percent African-American or Hispanic. Nine others were 92 percent or more white.

“There were white developments that had never had a tenant of color,” Gehl recalled.

After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that the Housing Authority had discriminated against minority tenants, HOME was appointed to a committee to draft a remedial plan. The organization, along with others, even took on the federal government when it was determined that the remedial plan was not adequately funded.

Meiselman, president of Oxford Consulting, will receive the James Crawford Award, HOME’s highest honor. Elizabeth Fox-Solomon, an attorney and senior vice president of HOME’s board of directors, will receive the Director’s Award.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com