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Warning Signs

In enclaves like Scottsdale, a realtor's shingle becomes an omen.

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By Grant Pick

For 17 years Charles Mazur has lived in Scottsdale, a white southwest-side enclave of tidy ranch houses and bungalows near the Ford City mall. Mazur is a salesman with a nonworking wife, small children, and much of himself invested in his house. Since Mazur bought the place he's added a second story, a family room complete with a Jacuzzi, and a deck with a swimming pool.

"Down the road I'm looking at college costs for my kids, and I can't afford the real-estate taxes in the suburbs," he says. "In the 'burbs my wife would have to go out and grab a job. Here I have a house with 2,700 square feet of wonderful space. The Catholic school, Saint Bede's, is great for our kids. We're happy here."

Well, not entirely. Mazur is bedeviled by a common bugaboo of blue-collar city neighborhoods--the growing number of For Sale signs in front of his neighbors' houses. On the south side especially, For Sale signs augur panic peddling and quick racial shifts. The archetypal stampeded neighborhood is Roseland of the 1970s, but there have been many others. It's a fearsome prospect when yours looks like the next.

"If you see a For Sale sign on a block, what do you perceive?" Mazur remarks. "You think, 'What's the matter with the community? Why are people leaving?' The buyers and sellers become people looking for a deal from realtors only too willing to give them one. The neighborhood flips over. That happened in Roseland, with people moving out at midnight for the best dollar they could get. We don't want to become another Roseland--nobody does."

Over the last year, Mazur and other Scottsdale home owners have been pressuring realtors to junk their For Sale signs in the name of neighborhood stability. But the leading local realtors have been unsympathetic, if not hostile, to this demand. Most realtors continue to post the signs, while some residents still look for ways to eliminate them.

As long ago as 1973 the city of Chicago passed an ordinance to prohibit For Sale signs, but four times the courts have tossed out such laws on grounds they abridged free speech and illegally restrained trade. Bans remain in place in a handful of suburbs, such as Oak Park, Crestwood, and Calumet City. In the city, wealthy north-side neighborhoods have welcomed the signs while quiescent Scottsdale once considered the issue irrelevant. "Houses here sold so fast that you never saw signs," says Mazur.

That changed a few years ago when World War II-era families, the children grown and gone, began unloading their houses. "The older people looked to sell because there wasn't anything here for them anymore," says John Kmiecik, owner of a Century 21 agency at 79th and Pulaski. "Their own kids had resettled to the suburbs, and they didn't want the hassles--the maintenance, the snow shoveling. Here's a graying population going condo crazy." The house hunters looking to buy have been largely blacks and Hispanics from Marquette Park, Bridgeport, and other Chicago neighborhoods, according to Kmiecik. And he adds, "Federal law says anyone can buy any house anywhere if they can afford it."

But open-housing advocates counter that For Sale signs can have a deleterious effect on neighborhood stability. "The presence of signs, where lots of houses are on the market, contributes to a sense of anxiety," says John Lukehart, vice president of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, which supports sign regulation.

Members of the real-estate committee of the Scottsdale Homeowners Association (SHA) say they oppose For Sale signs not for racial reasons (though the area today is less than 1 percent African-American) but to maintain property values. "I didn't pay a lot for this ol' muffler," says Mazur, a committee member, who purchased his house for $36,000 and estimates it's now worth $150,000 or more. "Realtors can talk all they want about their constitutional rights, but we have the constitutional right to a good price for our places," says Mary Ellen Ricobene, a Scottsdale housewife. Tracking house sales in the Daily Southtown, Ricobene has calculated that the average purchase price of a Scottsdale house has fallen by as much as $20,000 in the last two years. (Kmiecik maintains prices in the area have remained flat.)

In June 1996 the real-estate committee collected 1,500 names of Scottsdale residents who pledged to list their houses only with realtors who were antisign. In October the Greater Ashburn Planning Association (GAPA), a fledgling umbrella organization, convened a meeting of area activists and realtors--among them Kmiecik--to discuss the sign issue. Mazur showed the petitions to the realtors. "They laughed at me," says Mazur. "They pulled the petitions apart and said, 'You better get a lawyer to look at this language because your jargon is all wrong. This is not going to happen in this community.'"

Kmiecik, the outgoing president of the staunchly prosign Chicago Association of Realtors, says he and his colleagues had reason to dig in their heels. "In the old days people shopped for a home by picking up the local newspaper and calling the local realtor," he argues. "No more. Buyers are more sophisticated. They drive up and down the street--they want to know what the school looks like, what the street looks like." Fully 60 to 70 percent of the calls to Kmiecik's office are prompted by For Sale signs, he reports.

"When someone commits to marketing a home, they want every opportunity to offer that home to as many buyers as possible," says Kmiecik. "Now if someone tells me to put away the sign, I'll do that. Otherwise, I have no problem with posting it." He also says that suburban realtors are adamant about putting up signs, and to keep up with the competition he's had to follow suit.

Ricobene responds that the realtors are being disingenuous, that For Sale signs are, in fact, poor marketing tools. As evidence, she points to a 1994 study by the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center, which determined that only 9 percent of the home buyers in the six-county area found out about their residences from For Sale signs posted there. Half found out from the realtors they contacted, according to the study.

Ricobene likes to call up realtors and inquire about houses advertised by sign in Scottsdale. "Oh, that one's under contract," she is often told, "but we have these other houses in your neighborhood." Realtors, Ricobene concluded, principally use the signs to sell other houses and advertise themselves.

At a second meeting with realtors in May the GAPA said it wanted to compose a referral list of realtors who would promise to forgo signs and agree not to solicit customers by mail or phone. For years realtors in integrated Beverly have voluntarily abided by those provisions, but the Ashburn agents refused them all. "We're just little Joe Blows, and the realtors around here aren't interested in us," says Dawn Anderson, chair of the SHA real-estate committee.

The little Joe Blows have fought back. Last October the real-estate committee counted 127 signs posted in Scottsdale, and the group dispatched letters to the offending home owners; by December there were 34 fewer. On weekends members of the committee canvass the area for signs that are illegally posted on city lots, light poles, and parkways, and when they find violators they take Polaroid photos, submit them to the ward streets and sanitation office, and insist that $200 tickets be written. "We have tickets pending worth $2,800," Ricobene says proudly. When signs turn up on land belonging to other businesses, the SHA sign hawks ask the owners to take them down. Through GAPA they also send a letter to sellers displaying signs, requesting that they be removed and touting the GAPA program that will refer them to cooperating agents.

The letters draw a mixed response, says GAPA executive director James Kelly, but 15 GAPA-area agents have joined the referral list. "So far we've made about 30 referrals," Kelly reports. "We haven't exactly cornered the market." In fact, two of the agents on the list say that if a seller insists on a sign they will post it.

Overall it's been a good year for real-estate marketers. In May federal judge Brian Duff struck down the state's antisolicitation ordinance, which had enabled home owners to sign affidavits barring realtors from contacting them by phone or mail. Ricobene says mail solicitations are up in Scottsdale, and For Sale signs continue to pervade the neighborhood. An August survey counted 120 of them. (By contrast, there are 11 in much larger Beverly-Morgan Park, according to the Beverly Area Planning Association.) Kmiecik's firm, with six signs posted in Scottsdale, tied in the survey as the second-worst offender.

To Mazur, it all comes down to the money the realtors see in the signs. "If you're in business today, being a good citizen doesn't make any difference," he says. "There's an old saying--money talks, and bullshit walks. If money is on the line, what can you do?" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary Ellen Ricobene, Dawn Anderson photo by Jon Randolph.

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