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Housing sting: Evanston realtors are accused of racial steering

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It's one of the oldest stings in the book. Two testers--one black, one white--walk into a real estate office and ask the agent what's for sale.

If he's dumb, the agent steers the white tester toward white areas and the black tester away from them--and vice versa with black areas. If he's really dumb, the agent makes a few bigoted wisecracks. All of which the testers record and turn over to prosecutors, who then indict the agent for racial steering.

Such discriminatory steering happens quite often in the south suburbs and on the city's southwest and northwest sides. The latest batch of allegations comes out of integrated Evanston. All told, five real estate firms in the north suburb have been charged with racial steering. Another five firms were accused of breaking a local law by not distributing Evanston's fair-housing brochure. Two of the cases will be heard in federal court; the others will be presented to Evanston's Human Relations Commission. The allegations emerged from a recent fairhousing audit conducted for Evanston by the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs.

Spokesmen for the five companies whose agents were charged with discrimination--Baird & Warner, Inc., Century 21/Shoreline Realtors, Inc., Re/Max Lakefront, Merrill Lynch Realty, Inc., and Real Estate Professionals--have nothing to say about the allegations yet. "My only comment is that we are innocent," says Julie Malmed, president of Century 21/Shoreline. "That's all I'm going to say."

Evanston officials express disappointment with the evidence of discrimination. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised," says Owen Thomas, executive director of the Human Relations Commission. "Evanston is a heterogeneous community, but it's not happenstance that 98 percent of the black population lives in west Evanston. We've got some realtors in Evanston who play straight up, but we've also got some bad apples who have been playing these racial-steering games for a long, long time."

Most baffling is that the latest allegations reveal an astounding ignorance on the part of agents from some of Evanston's premier real estate firms. Evanston is an economically and ethnically integrated community whose real estate market is booming. Yet the charged agents apparently acted as though they thought sections of their community were slums.

"The average price of a house sold through the North Board of Realtors in Evanston is over $200,000," says Joe Goodman, president of Orrington Realty. "Prices on the average have gone up 13 percent annually for the last three years. They've gone up 120 percent since 1979. Last year only about 7 percent of the houses sold for less than $80,000. A three-bedroom condo goes for $165,000. Some houses by the lake go for over a million. Like all the northern suburbs, this is a boom market."

It should be. Evanston has everything Chicago has and more. It's got the lake, the el, clean tree-lined streets, well-kept parks, a strong tax base, splendid old houses, and, most important, excellent public schools. The market could draw the same kinds of people--white professionals--that moved to Lincoln Park and the near north side.

"I think Evanston will gentrify as more and more young people in Chicago have children of school age," says Judy Jager, staff organizer for the Evanston Neighborhood Conference, a coalition of local community groups. "Most whites here like living near blacks, and most blacks like living near whites. The beauty of Evanston is its diversity--that's why so many of us came here."

Of course, one can only speculate on how agents view the relationship between race and real estate in Evanston, since they won't talk about it. "I don't have any idea of what the future real estate market in Evanston is," says Alan Bigelow, vice president of residential sales for Baird & Warner. "Neither do you, although everyone is entitled to his own opinion."

Nevertheless, some agents still seem to cling to the notion that whites will never want to live alongside blacks. Agents from the firms charged with racial steering allegedly did not show listings in white areas to blacks and steered whites from black neighborhoods. "We'd have a white tester ask for property in the range of about $80,000," says Fred Underwood, the fair-housing educator for the Human Relations Commission. "The agent would say 'We don't have any.' Then the tester would flip through the book of multiple listings and see all these nice homes in that price range. He'd say 'What about these?' And the agent would say, 'Oh, you don't want to live there--that's on the west side.'"

Evanston's west side is a stable working-class community of wood frames, two-flats, and bungalows that would cost a fortune if they stood on the north side. In its heart--at the intersection of Church and Dodge streets--stands Evanston Township High School. The area does have some run-down homes, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be called a slum.

Blacks do live on the west side, as they have for years. "I grew up in the same house I live in now," says Thomas. "I went to Evanston Township High School, played football, went to college, played pro ball for three years for the New York Giants, and then came back to Evanston. This is my home. That's the way I view it."

In the past two decades, Evanston's black residents have moved into other sections of the suburb. As they did, there was the usual misguided blather about rising crime and falling property values. But the fears never came true. There's not a section of Evanston--black or white--where real estate prices aren't rising. There are even a few neighborhoods, like the one around Nichols Junior High School, where blacks and whites live side by side.

Yet when white testers Curt Matlin and Laureen De Temple walked into a Century 21/Shoreline office and asked for houses in the $90,000 price range, the agent allegedly said he had none. An agent from that same office, however, had showed such homes in west Evanston to blacks just a few weeks before.

"The bigotry in some cases is unbelievable," says Thomas. "We had an example where an agent told this sociologist 'Oh, I don't think you'll find the house you want in Evanston.' The sociologist said 'Well, let's try.' So they took a drive, and they went past Church and Dodge, and the agent pointed to some black kids playing on the corner and said 'You don't want your kids going to school with kids like that. Let me show you some houses where you'll want to live.' They drove into Wilmette [which is virtually all white], and when the sociologist got out of his car, the agent said 'You don't have to lock the door. This isn't Evanston.'"

The problem with such attitudes--in addition to being repugnant--is that they inflate housing costs, breed bigotry, and fuel fears. "A lot of segregation is based on profit motive," says Thomas. "If white people believe they can only live in one section of Evanston, you've limited their supply of housing--which means they'll have to pay more for their house. It's the same for blacks."

"The classic result of segregated markets is panic peddling," says Jager. "When there are not many whites willing to buy in a market, the agents will tell white home owners 'Sell now before the neighborhood goes black.' I saw it happen all over the south side of Chicago,"

In their defense, real estate agents will probably say that they didn't create bigotry. That it's not their fault that a lot of whites don't want to live near blacks. That agents do only what the markets want or allow them to do. Indeed, for years whites in Chicago hailed those agents who kept blacks from white neighborhoods.

"It's not good enough to say 'Since a lot of people are bigots, we should let agents be bigots,'" Underwood counters. "There are laws against segregation. What we must do is make the penalty against segregation so prohibitive that realtors won't do it anymore."

The end result of the current cases could be court-imposed fines as high as $100,000, although in making some of its allegations the Human Rights Commission seems to have been rather persnickety. One agent, for instance, was charged with steering because he told a tester that the homes near a black area were "tacky."

Ironically, even the most antediluvian real estate agents may be singing a different tune by the time these cases come to court. By then they may have borrowed a page from their counterparts in the gentrifying sections of Chicago's Wicker Park, where the deal is to buy low from low-income blacks or Hispanics--after barraging them with phone calls--and sell high to upscale whites.

"Right now real estate agents here are working from the traditional assumption that the black and white markets have to be separated," says Jager. "But it would be very doable for brokers to go to the north side and funnel people into the west side of Evanston. Those new residents would be as happy as clams here. In a year or two [the agents] will probably push gentrification."

If so, the battle cry will be raised against displacement, and Jager, for one, will help lead the charge. "I think segregation is wrong, but I think it would be a tragedy if Evanston were to have unlimited gentrification. The people who live in Evanston are generally compassionate and generous people. I hope we don't become a community of selfish, childless couples."

"I realize that displacement could be a problem, but I don't think we'll see the kind of massive change that some people talk about," says Thomas. "We should be pushing integration. I mean real integration, with blacks and whites living on the same block. I know there are blacks who want to live with blacks, just like some whites want to live with whites. But we've got to make it clear that race should never be used to stop anyone from living where he wants to. It's a struggle--there's so much resistance. But once we get people living together we can dispel a lot of the fears. People can see how much they have in common."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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