News & Politics » Feature

Where the Action Isn't

A Real Estate Firm on the West Side



When people talk about real estate in Chicago, they're usually talking about the game as it is played on the north side.

You have state-of-the-art realty firms there, headquartered in offices with brightly colored awnings and computer work stations and designer logos on the door. These realtors concentrate on selling properties, period.

The salespeople have MBAs and lots of savvy. They know how to "farm" blocks on the verge of redevelopment, mailing letters to home owners with offers of free appraisals ("There's absolutely no obligation," the letters invariably state. They stick their business cards through the mail slots of old ladies' two-flats in hopes of attracting a hot property. Put your house on the market, and in minutes, via a multiple listing service, every broker within miles realizes your place is up for sale.

The ads for north-side town houses, condos, and single-family homes run several pages in the real estate section of the Sunday Tribune, the city's premier real estate mart. The prices are as overblown as the little headlines: "Owner Says Sell!" "Buy of the Century!" "Uncompromising Luxury."

On a recent Sunday, by contrast, there were no listings in the Trib for condos on the greater west side (the area bounded on the north and south by North Avenue and Roosevelt Road, and on the east and west by Ashland and Austin Boulevard). There was just one advertisement for a west-side house, and that turned out to be a three-flat. A half-dozen multiunit buildings were on the selling block, but neither the headlines nor the prices were sky-high. Basically the downtrodden neighborhoods of East and West Garfield Park, Lawndale, and Austin had next to no representation in the Tribune ads. Even the Sun-Times's "Homelife" section listed only six homes and four buildings.

Yet though it's hidden to the casual observer, real estate activity does occur on the west side. One layer of action, which is fairly extensive there, involves speculators and just plain mopes acquiring abandoned and foreclosed buildings, in government sales and otherwise. Above this so-called submarket, there is a smattering of real estate brokers, businesspeople peculiarly bred for the west-side climate.

You will find, strung across the belly of the west side, no more than a dozen of these small-time brokers. They are principally blacks who have toiled in the west-side vineyards for years. (There are white brokers on the west side, but fewer than there used to be.) "When these guys first started out, the white brokers got all the good listings," says Curtis Purnell, a hardware merchant turned real estate consultant. "The blacks got the dogs. The blacks survived by hook or by crook." The ones still around have had to be clever.

Unlike the upmarket specialists common to the north side, nearly all the west-side brokers have had to diversify--into property management, appraising, and life insurance, for example--in order to make it. To this day they feed off a market that is decidedly depressed; more than the usual share of conveyed properties comes from the submarket. But business is done less through advertising and hucksterism than on the north side and more out of clients' loyalty to the brokers. An odd homeyness characterizes the marketplace. And these brokers' sales of houses and multiunit buildings overall seem to indicate a heartening though tiny upswing for a marginal section of the city.

No firm better illustrates the phenomenon of the west-side practitioner than Lambert's Realty, 5361 W. Madison.

The illuminated sign out front of the small brick building reads "Lambert's Realty Inc.," in neat white letters on a black background. A small emblem occupies one corner.

A push on the bell out front gets a visitor buzzed inside, out of the heat and the traffic pulsing back and forth on Madison. A young woman behind a glass window asks your business, and after you reply, "I'm here to see Mrs. Lambert," your arrival is announced.

The Lambert in question is 48-year-old Jerline Lambert, and the wait to see her normally lasts about five minutes. The waiting room has a worn yellow sofa, two black vinyl chairs, and a coffee table; cigarette butts spill out of the ashtray. The ceiling is white stucco. Displayed on the yellow walls are two prints, streetscapes of Michigan Avenue at the Art Institute and at the Wrigley Building. Yet what commands the room is a poster portrait of Harold Washington. "No cash," advises a sign on the receptionist's window. Behind it you glimpse a clock whose face is decorated with portraits of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

"Mrs. Lambert will see you now," says the receptionist, and you are ushered down a narrow hall. There is no evidence of the new technology. In a cloistered office with a plaster fireplace, you find a slim, middle-aged woman sitting behind a broad desk.

One wall of her inner sanctum holds honorary plaques from various radio stations and community groups. Another wall is hung with photographs of Jerline Lambert with celebrities: Jesse Jackson, Jerry Butler, Jayne Kennedy, Ben Vereen, Danny Davis, Channel Two reporter John Davis, and the prime minister of the Bahamas.

In the pictures, Mrs. Lambert's hair is sometimes red, sometimes not, but nowadays it is hennaed and often pinned back with a mother-of-pearl comb. She wears smart suits and two rhinestone rings per hand. But her most noticeable characteristics are a high-pitched voice and a laugh that soars even higher to cap important sentences. The laugh is as tough-edged as it is amused.

The principals at Lambert's Realty are Jerline and her five children. The Lamberts--each has a different function--sell, manage, appraise, and rehabilitate properties, largely on the west side. "My philosophy has always been to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that," says Jerline. "That way, when house sales are good I can eat steak, and when they go down I can at least eat.

Jerline relies for grocery money on the two different yet interconnecting real estate markets already mentioned.

In the submarket, speculators and buyers with little to spend can pick up unwanted properties, either through a live auction of foreclosed buildings the Cook County sheriff holds three days a week, or through a silent-bid auction the regional office of HUD runs every Thursday. (Ironically, HUD lists the buildings with defaulted FHA loans each Sunday in the Trib business section.)

Fully 8 percent of the current HUD auction inventory for Illinois is on the west side. In the 1987 Cook County tax scavenger sale--a six-month affair--the county assessor unloaded thousands of tax-delinquent pieces of real estate. The assessor's office estimates that, of roughly 10,000 items sold within the city, fully 30 percent were located on the west side.

The west-side real estate scene just above the submarket bumps right along, but it's not what you'd call bustling. For one thing, upstanding west side home owners tend to stay put. "Many blacks who bought on the west side in the 50s and 60s still own the places they started with," explains Purnell. As a real estate consultant he concentrates on clients trying to tap into the submarket, yet he does know the regular market as well. "It's like, hey, a guy'll say, 'My home is my bed. Even if I can afford it, why should I change my mattress?' Just owning a home is an accomplishment enough in life. There isn't the trading up you see among slick baby boomers."

If someone does want to sell, Purnell continues, "He doesn't come to me. He can go to the same hole-in-the-wall broker he bought his place from in the first place--that's if the broker's still in business. The broker takes that listing and puts it in a drawer, and if a buyer calls and wants a house, a sale transpires. If not, the listing gets no action. There's no multiple listing service, nothing like that."

Lambert's Realty concentrates on the stratum above the submarket.

Lambert's opened up 20 years ago in Lawndale, moving shortly thereafter to its West Madison address. The first-floor office space, not strictly speaking a hole-in-the-wall, has been expanded step-by-step to accommodate Jerline's children. Charles Jr. oversees VA properties. Kenneth sells and manages buildings. Herman is Jerline's appraisal aide, and Virginia, at 34 the eldest Lambert child, is her administrative assistant. The baby, Pat, is the receptionist. They share the office with an insurance broker and bookkeeper, Carter Jones, who goes under the rubric of the Tharmax Insurance and Income Tax Service. His bookkeeping clients include the Lamberts.

Whatever the job descriptions, Jerline built the company and still presides over its affairs. "Naturally I'm the senior broker," she says, "though if my children want to say something, it's only fair of me to listen."

These days, however, Jerline avoids selling properties because, she says, "When you sell, you are the middle-man between the buyer and the seller, and you have to please both of them. I'm not so good at aimin' to please. You go out to see some people about a listing, and all they want to do is talk about their family." When asked whether she'd like to be Goldie Wolfe, a go-for-it commercial realtor for Rubloff Inc., Jerline has this to say: "I don't know her personally, but she sounds fantastic. I'd love to be her if I could deal with the stress. But stress is what will kill you, and I have no intention of ending up dead."

Jerline prefers to execute administrative chores and do appraisals for the Veterans Administration on properties for which a VA loan is being sought. She regularly climbs into her gray Mercedes sedan, with "Jerlam" plates, and motors off to meet the broker selling the house. To assess the house, she essentially cases the joint, snooping upstairs and down. A tour by Jerline usually lasts about 20 minutes. Later, her son Herman will stop by to take photographs and measure the lot dimensions, and Jerline will figure out what comparable houses in the same neighborhood are going for. She often gets up early and completes the VA paperwork at home, in her South Shore condominium.

Jerline has assigned Ken Lambert to house and apartment building sales. He's Jerline's third oldest child, 31, and about as affable a man as you can imagine. He has an open manner, a quick smile, and a hearty laugh. Many customers come to Ken Lambert through word of mouth; often they return because they like him.

The standard procedure is for Ken to take down information from a seller on the property, and then determine a price.

The west side has some stunning homes, for example on Midway Park and Race Street in Austin; there the prime Victorians average $90,000, according to Joe English, an Oak Park realtor. The average well-maintained single-family in Austin--one that Lambert's might take on--will draw about $65,000, according to Ken, and a two-flat will run up to $80,000. Go east to West Garfield Park, and the prices fall off 40 percent. In Lawndale the market is down a notch more. Ken only goes with what he feels will be winners: "We only take on a piece we feel we can sell."

In prosperous areas of the city and suburbs, many real estate boards operate multiple listing services: brokers share their offerings by computerized booklets. For example, the Cooperative Listing Service, for the north lakefront, originates with the North Side Real Estate Board and is distributed only to its members. But there is no board for the relatively infertile west side.

The citywide Chicago Board of Realtors, to which Jerline does belong, has its own multiple listing service, but the latest edition, in book form, featured only seven west-side listings out of a total of 207 items. And members of the Dearborn Real Estate Board, composed principally of black brokers, do maintain an informal listing service. Says president Bill Raglin, "We just call each other up when we've got something." But the Lamberts seldom rely on the Dearborn network either. Occasionally Ken will place an ad in the Tribune or Sun-Times, but not often. The standard modus operandi for marketing is to post a for-sale sign in the yard or pass a flier around the immediate neighborhood.

When a buyer comes angling for a Lambert's listing and then decides to make an offer, Ken tries pretty diligently to determine in advance whether the purchaser will qualify for a mortgage. Does the prospective buyer hold a secure job with a large enough income to devote 25 percent of it to a mortgage payment? Is the person in debt, and how much? Is there sufficient money in the buyer's pocket for a down payment with a bank, savings and loan, or mortgage company? (On a conventional loan, the down payment is usually 10 to 20 percent of the purchase price, much less for government financing.) If the buyer is in shape, Ken will exact some earnest money, a small expression of faith ultimately paid to the seller.

As soon as the prospective buyer "prequalifies" to Ken's satisfaction (and all but four or five a year do, Jerline reports), the next step usually is to find a financial institution to back the transaction. Often that turns out to be the Harlem Avenue branch of the Milwaukee-based Fleet Mortgage Corp., a giant mortgage company with branches in 34 states. A Fleet loan officer works out the particulars, which can mean a conventional loan but as a rule involve a VA or Federal Housing Administration (FHA) package.

(A VA loan is partially backed against forfeiture by the Veterans Administration, and thus the buyer, an ex-serviceman, can opt not to make a down payment--which makes his monthly payments a bit higher. The loan is assumable by the next buyer of the property whether or not he or she is a veteran. On an FHA loan, viewed by the agency as a tool for the first-time home buyer, the down payment is only 3 to 5 percent of the purchase price. In exchange for that reduced payment, the buyer must pay a premium of 4 percent of the loan total to the lending institution, an amount that is usually folded into the monthly mortgage payments.)

Depending on what kind of financing is being executed, there can be more paperwork, but ultimately a deal is struck. If the buyer wants it, Lambert's orders fire insurance. A gentlemanly closing takes place at a title company, typically Intercounty Title or Chicago Title & Trust.

Lambert's Realty sells anywhere between 14 and 20 properties a year this way, as a rule realizing a 7 percent commission from the seller. In the vast majority of instances, both the seller and the buyer have approached Lambert's for help, and therefore instead of two brokers, only one is involved. In the words of one client, "They become everybody's mom for the whole damn shooting match."

To make a typical Lambert-style purchase of a $40,000 home on an FHA loan requires about $1,200 down, plus an attorney's fee and closing costs, for perhaps a total of $2,500 up front. The monthly interest payment on a standard 30-year mortgage would run $420. "For a working couple, to do this is not too difficult," Ken contends, "and often it's cheaper than to rent."

Blue-collar couples in fact make up most of Ken's customers. "Our people are lower-middle-class, and both are working," Ken says. "They are generally moving from an apartment to their first home, and they are old to be making that first jump; they can be anywhere from 25 on up to 45. Ninety percent of our people are black."

Loucius and Hattie Weathersby, for example, had been renting a two-bedroom apartment on West Fullerton for years. They had raised and still housed two sons, now in their early 20s, in the cramped quarters, but finally Hattie, a furniture finisher, got sick of it. Last summer she dragooned Loucius, a construction worker, and they went off in the family car looking for houses. The first one they liked was listed with a Century 21 agency, and the price proved beyond their means. So Loucius and Hattie went out driving again.

Finally last August they drove down a quiet block of West Thomas Street, and there was a perfect three-bedroom bungalow with a Lambert's sign out front. They called up Ken, bid $47,000 for the bungalow, received a mortgage from Fleet, and closed in November. The Weathersby sons now reside in the attic. The downstairs is sparsely furnished, but Hattie couldn't be happier. A retiring woman of 49, she is hard put to express her joy, but the boxes of petunias she's placed on the stone stoop may express in a different way what she feels.

"I'll be honest with you, I never wanted to own a home," says Loucius, 64, a towering six-feet-five and more talkative than his wife. "I had a friend who owned a place, and they tore it down to make way for a Shell station. That disgusted me, and I said, 'Shit, I ain't ever goin' to buy.' When our kids were grown up, I got to thinking we should go back down to Mississippi, where Hattie and I were raised. Then we saw this house, and Ken sold it to us. We didn't know the shape it was in. A man came out to clean the furnace, and when he took the jacket off, the damn thing just fell apart. The paint job on the west side of the house was lousy. Those kind of things vex you, but when all is said and done I'm glad we bought.

"The truth is, I kick myself for not buying earlier. I hope to improve the house, so when we sell it we'll get more than we paid. I want to build a wet bar, though I don't drink, and the boys need a living room up in the attic. The front could stand a fancy steel door, and though it'll cost me $600, I expect to put one in. But I don't want my house to go downhill, no sir. That's the way our block is, with church people, nice people, and hell, is it quiet--I never seen a dog go down the street, that's how quiet."

Ken Lambert occupies the two-flat at one corner of the Weathersbys' block, and Loucius likes Ken. Up until the time he bought, Loucius Weathersby had never met a realtor.

Clients like the Weathersbys buy out of happenstance as much as from intention, but Ken also attracts some investors. W.C. Curtis is a committed member of the Austin community. In 1972, he bought a brick house in west Austin for $20,500. Since then, the 36-year-old factory supervisor has made his stake in the community as a precinct captain for 29th Ward Alderman Danny Davis and as a deacon at the New Galilee Baptist Church.

Three years ago, Curtis took a real estate seminar. "Those seminars get you all pumped up," he recollects. "You leave one of 'em, and you feel you can buy the world." Well, if not the world, then at least a west-side building from Ken Lambert. "I went to Ken because he knew my pastor and my children. Also, my being a precinct captain, I go to a lot of events, and so does Ken."

The building Ken found for Curtis was a West Garfield Park four-flat constructed in the 1940s. Curtis acquired it for $52,500 and converted it to six rental units. Now, although Curtis doles out $14,500 annually for his mortgage, taxes, insurance, heat, and maintenance, he draws $25,000 in rents.

The result was so pleasing that last year Curtis approached Ken again, on this occasion with a partner, to buy another building. The target was a West Garfield four-flat that had fallen into hopeless disrepair. Still, Curtis fancied the four-flat for its "yuppie-type location--near a food store, a laundromat, and an el station. The owner, a woman, finally agreed to let Curtis and his partner have it for $12,000. They have since obtained a $157,000 low-interest loan from the city, and are in the process of gutting the structure and then rebuilding it from scratch. Ultimately it will be HUD-subsidized Section Eight apartments.

"I've been blessed," beams Curtis. "I'm making big bucks."

Another side of the Lambert's operation is handled by Charles, the second-oldest child. If someone has defaulted on a home with VA financing, the VA tries to recoup some of its money by selling it off. Lambert's acts as a management broker for the VA, meaning it receives a fee from them to make sure the homes under its charge (which have often been abandoned) are secure and properly cared for. This falls to Charles, a thin, bearded man of 32. In addition, if a prospective buyer wants to see a particular house--the VA lists them each Friday in the "Homelife" section of the Sun-Times--Charles may do the showing. If the home sells through Lambert's, the company reaps a 5 percent commission. Of the 55 homes Charles handles in the usual year, he manages to unload about 15.

One Friday last December, Gwen, Richardson, a telephone company computer programmer, was leafing through the Sun-Times, and when she saw the list of VA-foreclosed houses, decided to buy. She was renting a nice apartment in Oak Park at the time, "but it occurred to me it was stupid to be paying rent and feathering someone else's pocket," Richardson recalls. Her brother had toured some places with Charles Lambert in the past, and he advised Gwen to call him. The conversation with Charles was pleasant, and shortly thereafter Gwen was driving by some addresses Charles had given her. The one that appealed to her the most was a bungalow in Maywood, and Charles got Gwen inside the house that same day.

Soon she was out at Lambert's with her fiance ready to plunk down $500 in earnest money. "When my fiance and I pulled up and realized this was the place," recalls Richardson of her first visit to Lambert's Realty, "I was pretty skeptical. When I saw that little office, where I had to be buzzed in, I thought to myself, 'Do I really want this?' But the Lamberts are friendly. They keep in touch, and they are helpful."

Richardson closed on her bungalow in February. Though problems have become apparent--the water pipes were rusted, the kitchen sink hopelessly clogged--Gwen realized from the outset her bungalow would need work: "You buy from the government, and you know you're going to have to put some work into a place. But I feel I got a good buy at $48,000. In Naperville, where I work, homes start at $90,000, and those ones are what I call prefab. In the long run, this will pay off for me, I'm sure."

Gwen is 29. In a few years she intends to relocate to Phoenix with her fiance--by which time she expects to have turned a tidy profit on her house.

Lambert's also functions as the management agent for absentee landlords. "If you are plagued with city inspectors, vacancies, nonpaying tenants, bill collectors, irate tenants, costly insurance coverage, constant repairs and improper record keeping," reads a shocking pink brochure the Lamberts pass out, "let us take the headaches out!"

Some of the landlords Lambert's manages for are black, some white; quite a number are Jews whose families once lived in Lawndale but have long since left. It falls to Ken to minister to the 42 buildings--some 700 units--in the Lambert's portfolio. To service the buildings, the company employs its own small force of janitors, electricians, plumbers, and painters. A Burroughs minicomputer, the office's only concession to the new technology, dispatches a monthly statement to each owner.

The buildings are located principally on the west side, though a smattering are south. "They aren't the best buildings in the world," says Ken, "but they aren't the worst, either. What the owners want, that's what we provide." Often the owners are stingy. An 18-unit complex of brick low rises at 58th and South Wabash was recently treated to tuck-pointing and a new roof, but the lawns are unkempt (even disregarding the drought), and the paint on the window trim is peeling badly. The complex is owned by a widow, says Ken, and given that there is only so much in her budget, "You have to be in a position to let things ride."

The city requires that buildings larger than four units be inspected annually, and the buildings managed by Lambert's escape being cited much. "We aren't in violations court very often," Ken claims.

Typical rents range from $285 for a four-room apartment in Lawndale, heat not included, to $350 for the equivalent in Austin, with heat included. Leases run for a year, which helps to keep the rents even with inflation. "We don't advertise for tenants," Ken explains. "We find in our buildings that when someone moves out, someone knows someone to move in." Tenants are encouraged to send in their payments by mail, either check or money order. Ken balks at collecting rents himself, calling that "an absolute no-no," a setup for robbery.

Most renters are good folk, in Ken's estimation, but some do prove to be trouble: "You have certain people who get into an apartment, pay their two-month security, and immediately you will have certain problems. They have a poor MO." Largely that means they shirk paying rent, often claiming there is damage to their apartment (a hole that needs plastering, a broken window) or giving other reasons. "The holidays are real bad," Ken reports. "Everybody gets the Christmas spirit. They get their priorities mixed up. They want to get all their nearest and dearest a gift, but they forget they need a place to stay. And oh, do they have excuses. Somebody died is the most common excuse, and there's this or that funeral to go to. . . . We had one woman whose father died three times."

Eviction notices are regularly filed against tenants through Lambert's attorney, Louis Vishny. Nearly every Friday finds Ken on the 14th floor of the Daley Center, at eviction court. "If something can be negotiated with the tenant, then we do that," Ken explains, "because our interest is not to have any apartment vacant." Nonetheless, he says, these proceedings result in about five evictions a month.

Occasionally, however, the tenant trouble demands sterner measures. If drugs or sexual favors are being sold from one of his flats, Ken tries to remedy the situation fast. "If you don't, established tenants will move," he says. "And the block clubs get all over you." Ken winces when recalling the hassle caused a few years back by a Lawndale tenant who was a drug dealer. The other tenants were outraged, and the police wouldn't act. Only extensive complaints got the cops to raid the apartment, at which time they confiscated hard drugs worth, to the best of Ken's recollection, $18,000.

In addition to property management, Lambert's Realty also occasionally descends into the submarket. They cadged some spare lots and buildings at last year's tax scavenger sale, for instance, and rehabbed and sold them. "We kind of dibble and dabble in all of that," says Jerline. "Some people will be losing their homes, and we are sorry about it. But if we can take a foreclosed home and rework it and get someone else in there, we will." Jerline says the profit on most Lambert's rehabs is funneled back into the company.

For his part, Ken says he prefers not to traffic in the shoddy edifices that make up the submarket. "To go to deed on that type of thing takes a considerable amount of time," he complains. Yet he must make money on such deals, since he regularly rehabilitates buildings as a side venture of his own. A 1983 find was a once-grand Queen Anne home in East Garfield Park. Built in 1892, the place had a sandstone facade, an ornate cornice, a gabled roof, and stained glass and pocket doors inside, but it was unoccupied and had been heavily vandalized. Ken paid $25,000 for the worn dowager and quickly turned it into two rental units, with new baths, kitchens, and electrical wiring. The front is now painted a bright orange, and two sisters occupy the two flats. Ken recently acquired the abandoned three-flat next door at the tax scavenger sale for $1,200; for $150,000 or more he plans to upgrade it and rent out the separate floors as Section Eight apartments.

The gross revenues of Lambert's Realty topped $1 million last year, says Jerline. However, she chooses to include in that figure (at least for public consumption) the value of all the buildings sold in the firm's residential sales--$600,000. Since the company only keeps a 7 percent sales commission per home, the true residential take might be closer to $42,000. "Let's just say we aren't starving to death, but we aren't earning exorbitant salaries, either," offers Jerline.

Ken, for his part, draws a base salary plus commission from the company--a sum he says totals about $25,000 a year. Ken's income is boosted, however, by profits on his rehabs. "I'm pretty well off," Ken observes. "I can't retire, but I'm stable." How stable his siblings are financially Ken does not say, but their income "comes from the duties they perform for my mother."

Their mother came up the hard way.

Jerline Lambert was raised in Forest City, Arkansas, the adopted daughter of a professor at a black college and his wife, an older couple who had had no children of their own. By the age of 14, Jerline was pregnant with her first child, Virginia. "It was the south," Jerline recalls, "and at that time you just got married." Her husband, Charles, was six years older than Jerline, and her parents had to sign an authorization to allow their marriage to take place. When her older children were still young, Jerline took to working the cotton fields of the spread her father-in-law sharecropped, and then of the small plantation her own father owned. Charles toiled along with her.

When she was 17, Jerline and Charles moved to Chicago. "His folks were here by then," she explains, "and it seemed things were better up north." While Charles worked for the Schwinn Bicycle Company, and later for a roofing firm, Jerline raised her children and gradually acquired an education and a career. "In my mid-20s I went to Jones Commercial [High School] to take business courses," she says. "I was nearly all the way to graduation, and then I didn't feel like going through with that." Eventually she passed a high-school equivalency exam and pressed on to earn an associate's degree from the old Central YMCA Community College.

In 1964, Jerline was licensed as a real estate salesperson. For a time she hung her hat with a man named Lattice Bass, who operated Excel Realty in Lawndale, and then she joined a competitor, Geraldine Wells. "I wanted the experience of being trained under a lady," she explains. "I had worked with men and had seen their point of view." Jerline did learn from Wells, and Wells rather liked what she saw in her subordinate, too. "Jerline was real forceful, a go-getter," recalls Wells, now in semiretirement. The big action at that time had Jerline selling the homes of whites, last aboard the train out of Lawndale, to blacks wanting to move in.

The broker's license Jerline obtained in 1968 enabled her to strike out on her own. She opened Lambert's Realty on April 15, 1968--days after the west side was engulfed by the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4.

Though much of the finest west-side housing stock was lost during those riots, the years following proved healthy for Jerline. "It was a good time, businesswise," she remembers.

"Before, mortgages weren't easily available. It had been so very, very hard to qualify a buyer. But after Dr. King's death, things kind of opened up. Bankruptcy used to disqualify you from getting a house, but suddenly that wasn't the case. FHA, VA, and some conventional loans were easy to get; normally people could get them just by writing a letter. The redlining that we used to see [financial institutions writing off certain communities for home loans] was not nearly as bad."

In 1973, Lambert's launched a satellite office on the south side, at 83rd and Ashland, a full-throttle affair with 11 salespeople. But Jerline got sick, an illness that required major surgery, and the strain forced her to shutter the south-side branch.

In time she reemerged, but on the west side only. She diversified more heavily into appraisals and property management. She also served on several prestigious boards in the 1970s, such as a governor's commission on mortgage practices and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), the predominantly black parent body of the Dearborn board. The emblem on the Lambert's sign identifies it as a "realtist," what a NAREB member proudly calls itself. In 1982 and '83, Jerline was president of the Dearborn board, established in Chicago in 1941 to unite black brokers, whom the Chicago Board of Realtors then froze out as members. She is invited to numerous board meetings and festivities nowadays, "but a lot of 'em I don't attend," she reports.

Except, that is, the festivities for certain politicians. She's given her allegiance in the race for mayor to 29th Ward Alderman Danny Davis. He and his wife bought the home they now occupy, at 5252 W. Polk, through Lambert's in 1979, just before his first election.

Jerline has backed Jesse Jackson since the early days of Operation Breadbasket. Jackson's wife, Jacqueline, is a close friend; together the two women founded the Chicago chapter of a charity, Africare, to help the needy in Ethiopia and the Sudan. Jerline, a big Jackson booster, trailed him to the Democratic Convention, not as a delegate but as a supporter. On the night Jackson gave his rousing speech to the delegates, Jerline watched from the section assigned him at the Omni arena. She was proud when the Jackson children introduced their father, but it was the address that truly affected her, particularly when Jackson recalled his poor roots. "I could really relate to that, because I grew up somewhat like he did in the south," she said from Atlanta the next day. "It brought tears to my eyes."

The Lambert children grew up on West Washington Boulevard, first in one four-flat, then another, owned by the Lamberts (Charles later kept these buildings in the settlement of his divorce from Jerline, a decade ago). The kids were--clearly--reared in the real estate business, although Jerline claims she downplayed their involvement. "I never encouraged my kids to join me," Jerline insists. "I wanted them to do what made them happy."

At first the children veered off in different directions. Ken, after earning a two-year degree at Central Y, became a manager of Burger Kings on the south side. "There was constant pressure on me in terms of keeping everyone happy--my customers, the bosses," says Ken. "There was so much bureaucracy and red tape. Plus, I could see I was only going to progress to a certain point."

One Saturday night in November of '75, after Ken had closed up the outlet he was managing in Roseland, he was trailed by a quartet of young men. Once he reached home, they drew a gun and forced Ken into the backseat of his car, which they drove back to the Burger King; there he was compelled to open the safe. After forking over the day's receipts, Ken and the night porter were tied up in back. "I wasn't with Burger King much longer after that," he notes acerbically.

Ken joined his mother in the business in 1976. Charles, who used to be an industrial dispatcher, came to work at Lambert's seven years ago. Gradually the other offspring have climbed aboard, too.

One persistent office problem is that everyone, including Jerline, looks about the same age. "A lot of people don't assume she's my mother," reveals Ken. "They think that she's my wife." Ken, who is married with two children, swears he is flattered by the mistake: "It makes me feel good, because they are complimenting Mom on her good looks." The prevailing office custom is for the kids to refer to Jerline as "Mrs. Lambert" in the presence of strangers, and even in front of people who realize what their relationship is. "We think that establishes more of a business posture," Ken explains. "Besides, my mother looks so young she doesn't want it on the line as to what age she actually is."

Lambert's Realty fares well on the west side--and the fact that a covey of firms have drifted to the suburbs or gone out of business in recent years has improved its foothold. But by no means does the firm have full title to the turf.

Other small, black-owned companies include Holman Realty and Roby Properties, nearby on Madison Street. White-operated establishments also draw away some black trade, out of blacks' false perception, Jerline contends, that white firms are superior. "We would rather deal with whites than blacks," Jerline observes of her own race. "Unfortunately that's our nature. We think whites will give better service." It is also still difficult for Lambert's to draw any listings from whites selling their homes in locales like North Austin.

Another crimp in Lambert's success is the hegemony of Century 21. The power of television advertising is such that many a west-side seller will automatically call up a firm in the Century 21 network, despite its being on the fringes of the area or--at least according to Ken--its inability to deliver a better deal. Jerline has approached Ken with the idea that Lambert's might affiliate with Century 21, but the son has yet to act on the suggestion.

"The Lamberts are good, honest working people just trying to survive," says Curtis Purnell, who has referred people to them. Still, Purnell feels all the west-side realtors are missing out by not adequately alerting potential property owners to the area's assets.

"The west side is the best side," Purnell insists. "You have two els going to the Loop, plus the Eisenhower Expressway. You don't have flooding problems. Stand on the top of a west-side building and you can see downtown. Drugs are bad, but they aren't as prevalent as you might think. Crime's down, I'd say. Most of the dilapidated buildings have been torn down, and those that are left are prime for reconstructing. Now the schools are something of a problem, but then those people who might consider coming back are thinking parochial and private schools for their kids anyway. If I had properties to sell on the west side, I'd explain the situation out there, and play up the assets."

"People get this image in their mind of a community," says W.C. Curtis, the real estate investor Ken Lambert is helping along. "It's like a woman with a bad reputation. She may have walked down the street nude 20 years ago. That was 20 years ago, but she's still considered a whore." As proof that the west side is no longer a trollop, Curtis points proudly to his own properties. The Austin home he purchased in 1972 for $20,500 is now valued at $65,000. The West Garfield four-flat he acquired for $52,000 just two and a half years ago is now worth $125,000--partly through rehabilitation, to be sure, but also because it's appreciated.

Talk to the Lamberts about the future of the west side--and their own prospects--and the conversation quickly turns to the new Bears stadium. In a pact announced in June, the city, the Bears, and Metropolitan Structures, the developer, are proposing the stadium for the blocks bounded by Damen and Ashland, between Jackson and Warren Boulevard. The displaced would be relocated into new housing erected nearby. The stadium project alone would require up to $30 million in state assistance, which the General Assembly has yet to consider.

"If the stadium is built, I know some people will be uprooted," Jerline says, "but it will bring in a lot of new people. Our whole area will come up." The stadium, Ken is convinced, "will have a domino effect." With heightened police security, Ken feels the west side will blossom. To capitalize on the situation, he feels Lambert's Realty should plunge deeper into redevelopment work.

"Look at that building, and that one," he bursts out one day while riding around East Garfield, pointing out row house after row house that could be upgraded, with huge profits, if the west side should ever catch fire. To Ken the potential hot spots, not surprisingly, include his own Queen Anne and the building next door to it that he plans to renovate. "We've been in this area 20 years," he says, "and we're committed to it. When the boom comes, we'll be out here waiting."

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

Add a comment