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Color Coordination

The Southern Suburbs' Fair Housing Quagmire

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Matteson (three syllables, please) may be one hour south of the Loop by train, but it has its own "Magnificent Mile," complete with Holiday Inn, Venture, Amoco, Mobil, Pathway Financial, Goodyear, the 140-store Lincoln Mall, and plenty of parking along six-lane U.S. 30 east of Interstate 57. Just north, at 20500 S. Cicero, the village has built a new police station in a large pasture, in the confident expectation that it will soon be surrounded by new development. For now, the police can look out at a grazing herd of black-and-white cattle. And on the west side of town, says community relations director Judith Kramer, "Our planners are looking at annexing all the way up to Frankfort"--a matter not of acres but of square miles.

The suburbs have inherited Chicago's legendary "I will" spirit. They have also inherited the city's equally legendary difficulty in bringing black and white people together. In 1970, Matteson counted 4,725 white residents and one black. Was racial integration an issue then? No way. By 1980, the census showed 8,485 whites and 1,266 blacks. Is integration an issue now? You bet your in-ground pool it is.

On its own, the village has acquired a fair housing ordinance (1978), a "racial diversity statement" (1979: "any actions . . . recreating racial isolation will be considered detriments to the health and vitality of our community"), a full-time Community Relations Director (1980), an ordinance prohibiting real estate agents from soliciting those residents who ask to be left alone, and an ordinance providing for inspection of houses before they can be sold. For a time the village also conducted "selling experience interviews" ("Has your home been shown to both black and white buyers? About what percent are black? About what percent white?").

Together with Calumet Park, Chicago Heights, Country Club Hills, Dolton, Glenwood, Hazel Crest, Park Forest, Richton Park, Sauk Village, and University Park, Matteson has also pursued "integration maintenance" (aka "racial diversity") by supporting the South Suburban Housing Center and the Fair Housing Legal Action Committee.

Contrary to those who think of south suburbia as Chicagoland's backward child, it is among the few places in the United States where suburbs work together publicly on issues of race and housing. According to University of Chicago political scientist Gary Orfield, "There are only really two areas in the country with any interjurisdictional cooperation on this issue right now," the other being the east suburbs of Cleveland. "That's why there is so much intense conflict." The suburbs and Housing Center are locked in a federal suit and countersuit (currently adjourned until mid-August) against the National Association of Realtors and the Greater South Suburban Board of Realtors--a potential landmark case in which both sides hope district judge Harry Leinenweber will decide what you can and can't legally do to maintain a few racially diverse islands in the segregated sea that is America.

The specter that haunts these suburbs is called "resegregation," although it doesn't work quite the same way here as it has in many Chicago neighborhoods. The first black move-in does not lead to a wave of panic selling at depressed prices--but as the percentage of minority residents in a subdivision increases, the percentage of minority home seekers increases much faster. For whatever reasons, the suburban housing market seems to resegregate much more quickly than the houses themselves. The suburbs involved have both a civil-rights reason and an economic reason for fighting this trend toward resegregation. (You're just not going to get the same price for your house if white buyers--80 percent of the potential market--aren't looking at it.) Their strategy against resegregation is roughly threefold: (1) Make sure white residents aren't scared off. (2) Make sure real estate agents show property to prospects of all races; when this involves special outreach to whites underrepresented in the market, it's called "affirmative marketing" and it's controversial. And (3) Make sure all suburbs are open to black renters and buyers (traditional open-housing work). If all the middle-class black demand for housing outside the city were channeled into the handful of suburbs known to welcome all races, then resegregation would surely result.

Let's face one thing right at the start: "Resegregation" is just a fancy five-syllable synonym for "racism," and it only works one way. White people tend to leave an area they feel has become too black, either because they themselves are prejudiced or because they fear too many of their white neighbors are. If that were not so, nobody would have anything to worry about. (Who cares whether a particular subdivision has too many, or too few, Methodists in it?) As Peter Flemister of the Far South Suburban Branch of the NAACP puts it: "If you tell blacks, 'Here come the white people, time to move,' they won't get excited. You'll be laughed at. It won't work."

"There are quite a few areas where you will not want to live," the real estate agent told a white prospect who last year asked for listings in the Matteson area. "It's illegal for me to tell you why, but you know what I mean."

If he didn't know, he soon found out. "This is the neighborhood with the listing you picked to see today," the agent continued as they drove into one subdivision. "I'm going to drive real slow so you can get a good look at the neighborhood and see if this is where you really want to live." Three black girls walked by, and the agent kept talking. "Just remember, these are the kind of people your kids will have to play with."

This is the bad stuff, and it happens to people of both races. "I have done testing since 1968," says Bill Granderson, a black tester for the Chicago Community Housing Resources Board, "and I get some salespeople who don't even recognize me from before." At the end of May, the Greater South Suburban Board of Realtors fined a broker and agency $1,000 each and suspended the broker from its Multiple Listing Service for 90 days--all because the broker repeatedly told white prospects that they could evaluate the quality of a school by its number of black students.

But gross as they are, such incidents aren't typical anymore. Most discrimination 1987-style is a lot like pollution 1987-style. You may not be able to smell it while it's happening, but it's there. The effects appear later on. In this vein, veteran fair-housing lawyer Alexander Polikoff tells the story of a friend of his, a white male, who a couple of years ago was moving to Chicago from Geneva, Switzerland. He worked with several different brokers, and they showed him 22 different possibilities: apartments, condominiums, single-family homes, city, suburban, north, west, south. "They all had just one thing in common," says Polikoff. "Not one was in an integrated building or neighborhood. No words about race ever passed. But judging from what he was shown, every one of the real estate brokers assumed what he wanted.

"In the end, he bought a condo on South Shore Drive, in an integrated building, not through a broker--it had been suggested by a friend. The day after he made the deal, he called one broker back to tell him the search was over. The broker was miffed: 'Why didn't you tell me you were interested in that kind of building?'"

It gets subtler--so subtle that an ordinary buyer might not even know what's going on. The white prospect at the beginning of this section, who was warned away from Matteson, was not an actual buyer but the white half of a pair of "testers" dispatched from the South Suburban Housing Center with matched fictitious identities, incomes, and housing desires--matched except for their race, for the purpose of conducting a controlled experiment on unsuspecting real estate agents. The white tester was shown homes in Homewood and Park Forest as well as Matteson; the black tester was shown six listings, all in the integrated Woodgate subdivision of Matteson.

At another office, both testers requested housing in the Homewood area. The white tester was shown four listings in Homewood. The black tester saw one in Homewood--and four in Hazel Crest. (Homewood was 2 percent black in 1980, Hazel Crest 12 percent.) As long as the agent keeps his or her mouth shut on the subject, no individual buyer is likely to realize that the agent is picking and choosing homes on the basis of the agent's hidden and limiting assumptions: that a white home buyer would prefer to live in as white a community as possible, and that a black buyer would prefer a more integrated one.

In fair-housing jargon, this is known as "steering," and it's against federal law, state law, and Article 10 of the National Association of Realtors' code of ethics. But how common is it? NAR associate counsel Bob Butters details the group's equal-opportunity programs--"we probably spend more money on this than any other entity, including HUD"--and asks, "Are we successful? Have we reached the point where I can assure you or anyone else that every realtor in the country markets in a color-blind fashion? I like to think a vast majority do, but when you have 780,000 members it's hard to tell for sure." Not that NAR tries very hard. Enforcement of its code is left in the hands of local boards, who do not report results to the national office. Butters notes that HUD gets fewer than 2,000 complaints about discrimination in housing sales out of some 2,000,000 homes sold per year--less than one in a thousand. He suspects that testing--"self-generated figures"--may not tell much about the real real estate market: "I have yet to see any figures on the direct relation, if any, between testers' experience and somebody else's inability to purchase housing of their choice."

Nonetheless, courts have accepted testers' evidence, and the fair-housing advocates have more evidence that discrimination is prevalent than the industry has that it is not. (Would you enforce traffic laws on a complaints-only basis?) Christine Klepper, executive director of the South Suburban Housing Center, calls steering in her area "blatant and pervasive."

"This year 42 percent of [black testers] were shown housing in 0-2.9 percent black [i.e. all-white] areas. Whites saw twice as much. I would say that's pretty severe disparate treatment, after eight or nine years of testing and dozens of lawsuits. As for whites being offered integrated neighborhoods, that's up to 25 percent this year. That's still astonishingly low. If whites are not offered these neighborhoods, they won't look there, and if they don't look, they won't buy."

The numbers don't prove quite as much as she would like them to--the Greater South Suburban Board has roughly 1,300 member agents, and the not quite 100 tests the Housing Center conducts each year tend to be directed toward problem areas--but they are pretty damning. Over time, any sizable amount of steering whites to whites and blacks to blacks has the effect of reinforcing white prejudices and confirming the cynical old definition of integration as that period of time between the first black's entrance and the last white's exit.

Nineteen years ago, it all seemed so easy: knock down the barriers of jim crow, and "black and white together" would follow. Thus spoke the junior senator from Minnesota, arguing for a federal fair-housing act in the spring of 1968: "The basic purpose of this legislation is to permit people who have the ability to do so to buy any house. . . . The rapid block-by-block expansion of the ghetto will be slowed and replaced by truly integrated and balanced living patterns."

The senator, of course, was Walter Mondale, and just as he has passed into oblivion, so has the notion that writing housing segregation out of the law was the same thing as writing integration in. Instead, discrimination has become increasingly subtle and sophisticated, whoever practices it, and fair-housing activists have had to do likewise.

Merely enforcing open-housing laws is not enough, as Kale Williams, Donald DeMarco, and Dudley Onderdonk acknowledged in a 1980 strategy paper published by Governors State University: "The process is long and complicated. Complainants must come forward, prepared to invest time and energy in court or administrative proceedings. Precedents must be established in case law to address each new subtlety of discrimination. The opposition of the organized real estate industry must be countered at each step of the way." A newly integrated community can resegregate long before enough steering complaints find their way through the system to make a difference; so a color-blind strategy is not enough. One way to get ahead of the game, they concluded, is to affirmatively market integrated communities "to attract buyers or renters of the racial group least likely to apply (white or non-white, depending on the circumstances)."

This is the crucial issue in "the present war in the southern suburbs" (as Dr. Kenneth E. Claus Jr. described it in a 1984 sermon at Faith United Protestant Church in Park Forest): In order to maintain "racial diversity," is it OK for integrated suburbs to spend extra time and money to reach out to white home buyers and residents? The South Suburban Housing Center has done yeoman work opening up segregated white suburbs to black renters and buyers. But individual suburbs concerned about resegregation almost always reach out to whites, because they're the first ones to flee, or not buy in the first place, if they believe a neighborhood is "changing."

The fair-housing advocates think the answer is obviously yes--who are you hurting by providing fuller information and expanding choices? Besides, HUD has required affirmative marketing in some of its programs since 1972. The organized real estate industry and the Far South Suburban Branch of the NAACP say the answer is obviously no: in order to decide when and where to market affirmatively, the government must have some idea, however ill-defined, how many blacks is too many, and that's just the same old racist quota system all over again. One piece of evidence for that--in the words of Al Pearson, president of the Greater South Suburban Board of Realtors--is that "one south suburban community once proposed a quota of 20 percent black, at a time when the town itself was 25 percent black!"

It does make a good story. The town was Park Forest South (since renamed University Park), the year 1977, the village president Larry McClellan, then a professor of urban studies at Governors State University. It's not too hard to find the facts (as far as they go)--since McClellan, an affable man with a pepper-and-salt beard, is still around, serving now as senior pastor of Saint Paul Community Church in Homewood, and he carefully deposited the archives of his administration in the GSU library.

Park Forest South was incorporated in 1967, and from the start it earned an open, liberal reputation. It established a human relations commission and passed a fair-housing ordinance in 1968, ahead of most suburbs. In 1970 the village was 3 percent minority, and its reputation made it attractive both to blacks looking for a welcoming environment and to real estate brokers anxious to place their black prospects somewhere where there would be less reaction than in, say, Crete or Calumet City. When the village took a special census in 1976, it was up to 26 percent minority, and a report that fall to president McClellan indicated "heavy black interest and little white interest" in the Park Forest South housing market. Here as in several other south suburbs, the black families tended to have more education and higher incomes than their white neighbors.

On November 22, 1977, the village trustees passed an ordinance requiring anyone selling or renting more than one dwelling place in PFS to make special efforts in their advertising and marketing to reach "the target population," namely "that population . . . which is racially under-represented in the Village as compared to its representation in the regional Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA)." Since the Chicago metropolitan area is roughly 20 percent black, the target population for the village was white. Says McClellan, "We had early on passed a resolution supporting Park Forest South as an open, integrated, diverse community. . . . our intent was for people in real estate to make a good-faith effort to encourage as large a real estate market as possible, to open up options to those underrepresented in the market. We understood that you can make good-faith efforts and not succeed. . . . But they wouldn't even talk to us."

The ordinance had a short, unhappy life. In March 1978, realtor John Towner complained to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that the ordinance violated the federal Fair Housing Act. HUD sent out its investigators, and McClellan found himself caught in the bitter paradox of integration maintenance. "I was absolutely clear this was an open community. But when HUD came out, the thing that struck me was that they didn't believe that.

"I said, 'There are 250 Chicago suburbs, and most of them are all-white. You don't investigate them.' 'Well, the complaint's against you.'"

Fifteen members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus--including state senator Harold Washington--signed a letter to HUD opposing the ordinance. The Illinois Realtor published wildly inaccurate descriptions of it, saying that it "attempts to restrict and limit the information given to prospective homebuyers," and that it would establish "a local control to prevent the minority population in village neighborhoods from rising above the 20% limit." Instead of deciding the complaint, HUD said it would withhold $1.5 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds the village was counting on. With that, the village capitulated, repealing the ordinance ten months after its passage.

Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten. The long-dead law is regularly resurrected in realtors' speeches and in law review articles. How can you fairly call it a quota plan? I asked Pearson. "It may not be written in black and white," he replied, "but I don't think you have to read very far to see what their goal was. They had an overage of 5 percent blacks. . . . Today, at the Housing Center, they don't mention numbers. They know better than that now. Today they stay away from that--for good reasons, I would say."

That kind of response dismays McClellan. "It's one of those very insidious things. How often do you have to say, 'Listen, the objective is justice for all people.' You start to feel, emotionally, as if you're almost the target of a kind of 'big lie' technique. Time after time people say you're limiting, directing, forcing, controlling--and it's just not true!"

But even more discouraging was the response he got a couple of weeks after the affair was over. He was chatting with another suburban mayor at a regional meeting, and the other man said, "You know the great lesson of your experience?"

"No--what?"

"Politicians should never take a public stand in favor of integration."

The official view of the real estate industry is that it shouldn't either. "All this organization has ever done," says Bob Butters of the National Association of Realtors, "is try its level best to reflect societal values as they exist. The fact is, whites are willing to pay a premium to live in predominantly white neighborhoods, and blacks are willing to pay a premium to buy a damn house, period, where they feel comfortable.

"We're not the reason why whites pay a premium. We don't make the market, we take it as we find it. It's sad morally that that kind of prejudice exists. We as an organization would stand up and say it should be dealt with--but I don't know how."

That claim of innocence may not be wholly credible: What evidence there is suggests that quite a few realtors are still reflecting obsolete societal values. Some of this may reflect personal prejudice, and some genuine ignorance. Joe Dabbs, who owns a Century 21 shop at the corner of Cicero and the Will County line, tells how one of his agents overheard this snatch of conversation:

Customer: "Are some areas turning black?"

Agent: "There might be some areas you wouldn't want to consider."

Dabbs fired the agent on the spot; the point is that she might be perfectly fair in dealing with a black prospect, and consider herself unbiased--not realizing that steering of white clients is discrimination too, in that it limits their choices.

Some realtors occupy a racially defined niche that would be less lucrative in an integrated society: one south suburban firm makes more than 5,000 calls per week to buyers on Chicago's south side and sellers in integrated south suburbs; roughly nine of ten sales it makes are to blacks. Finally, no doubt, some realtors steer out of inertia. Given the racial attitudes of many sellers and buyers, steering whites to white neighborhoods and blacks to black and integrated neighborhoods will often simply be the path of least resistance.

But to get back to those realtors who practice NAR's official policy of selling in a color-blind manner and letting the integrative chips fall where they may: they are understandably hesitant about getting close to the buzz saw of managing integration when it's their livelihood at stake. Dale Zahn manages the Richton Park office of Santefort Cowing, one of the largest firms in the area: "Over the years we have sold without any difficulty properties the fair-housing people thought were terrific prointegration moves. They didn't need any special outreach. We did it because it was right for the buyer and right for the seller--not because some fair-housing group said, 'You should put black people here and white people there.'

"One municipality gave one of our people a certificate suitable for framing--and I can tell you it never got framed!--because the agent had sold a home to a white in a supposedly hard-to-sell area. But that same village did not give a certificate to our sales agent who sold a home to a black in a white area."

Joe Dabbs is sympathetic enough with the Housing Center that he once asked them to test his firm: "I found the results very enlightening." So was the reaction to the results. His salespeople had in fact shown almost exactly equal numbers of blacks and whites homes in two suburbs, one about 50-50 white-black, the other 93-7. "The first village thought we should get a plaque--the second wanted to know if they could take legal action against us!"

This kind of episode makes the NAACP's Peter Flemister edgy about any government role beyond enforcing nondiscrimination. "I have a family--friends, relatives--and to have a community say it's going to use my tax dollars to reach out to someone else, to people who have always had the legal right to stay or move--it's not right. If you have a democratic system, the government cannot ensure results. It can open doors. But it cannot say to blacks, once you reach some certain percentage, we'll spend your tax money to attract other groups.

"If this is such a wonderful thing, why isn't it done for everyone? No other group is counted. Nobody says, 'Oh, we've got enough Catholics in our village now, let's do what we can to get a larger Jewish population.' We would ask that we not be treated any differently from anyone else."

Getting beyond images of war and paranoia, both the South Suburban Housing Center and its suburbs promote multiracial living in ways that few could quarrel with.

Some are straight home-improvement incentives, as when Park Forest--already the region's greatest success story of long-term, widespread integration--deposited $120,000 in a local financial institution for home-improvement loans to residents at extra-low interest rates.

Some are morale-builders, like the Housing Center's poster and poetry contests for schoolchildren, several towns' own newspapers (Matteson Matters, the Park Forester, etc), Hazel Crest's annual Hazel Nut Festival, or Hazel Crest assistant village manager Joe Martin's pep talk for locals who complain about real estate steering: "How many times have you been introduced to someone new and you say you're from 'near Homewood-Flossmoor'? That's understandable, but if enough of you say, 'I'm from a great little town 25 or 30 miles south of the Loop, Hazel Crest,' then eventually, maybe four years down the line, someone else is going to identify themselves as living 'near Hazel Crest'--because it has a good reputation."

Some are involvement-builders, like Hazel Crest's orientation and reception for new residents. ("We get a lot of people from Chicago, where you go to your alderman for services. They often don't realize how a professionally managed government works.") Or priming every village employee down to the lowest rung on the ladder about the low prices, convenient transportation, and other amenities of the area. "A meter reader who bad-mouths the community is automatically an expert on the village."

And some are quiet educational initiatives, like the profiles Park Forest assistant community relations director Barbara Moore writes up for the Park Forester (a recent pair featured Eddie and Sylvia Gay, black residents for 16 years, and Marnie and David Lonsdale, white residents for five years), informational meetings for real estate brokers, and home buyer seminars conducted by the Housing Center for both black and white audiences.

The Housing Center also makes available a map of southern Cook and northern Will counties entitled "Patterns of Racial Steering," which quickly and crudely clues buyers in on what may be being done to them. Most of the south suburbs are shaded, indicating to white home seekers, "if you are being shown or encouraged to consider homes in only these communities, steering might be occurring." For the 18 not shaded--Blue Island, Calumet Park, Dixmoor, Robbins, Dolton, Harvey, Markham, Phoenix, Hazel Crest, Country Club Hills, Glenwood, Matteson, Chicago Heights, East Chicago Heights, Park Forest, Sauk Village, Richton Park, and University Park--black home seekers are given the same advice: if this is all you're seeing, you may not be seeing it all.

Probably the most important education happens subdivision by subdivision. "Typically, we get called first by a group of home owners in a neighborhood that is integrating," says Housing Center executive director Christine Klepper. "They're being solicited [by real estate agents], there are for-sale signs up, they don't know what to do. Usually they're white, nervous, afraid--not panicked, though.

"The first thing I say to them is, 'Talk to your black neighbors. I don't want to come to another meeting here without blacks and whites in the same room.' It's real hard for them to do, but they do, and they are always surprised to hear that their black neighbors have the same concerns. We need to learn to talk to each other in racial terms--I've called it America's blind spot. . . . Realtors think all we do is sue them--but we spend far more time educating people and villages and institutions."

Although the Housing Center's staff of seven full-timers may not seem like enough to change the nature of the housing market in an area of almost half a million population, Klepper sees reason to hope that the blind spot is shrinking. "We're so far ahead of everybody else in the country, except maybe for Cleveland. When I first started in this, white people got together and thought all black people knew each other and the government was helping them. Now they know better, and they start in on the realtors--although that's not the whole problem by any means. They're only one part, but they're on the front line.

"We haven't had the block-by-block resegregation here that we saw in Chicago. We have areas that have remained integrated for a long period of time. I feel we have achieved so much with black and white people coming together in the south suburbs. Maybe they've backed into each other; it wasn't necessarily planned. But I've seen so much growth!" Realtor Joe Dabbs agrees: "Today we actually get transferees coming in who want to live in an integrated community. That wouldn't have happened 10 or 15 years ago--but there just aren't enough of them yet."

But there is still a good distance to travel. Barbara Moore of Park Forest chuckles ruefully: "I tell people I will have succeeded at my job when both blacks and whites call me about steering. I'm waiting for someone to call and say, 'They've only shown that home to white people!'" Likewise Joe Dabbs: "No one has ever called me and said, 'Send us some more blacks, we're not getting our share.'"

"I'm one of the unrepentant types," says Larry McClellan. "I still believe both in nondiscrimination and in prointegration. I don't think this country will make it if we don't finally resolve that question. That has got to be our common vision or we're doomed."

But on the other side, the NAACP's Peter Flemister: "I don't know what that word means. I prefer to use 'desegregation.' 'Integration' means everything to everyone. Black and white people have totally different perceptions of what it is."

Ironically, some of the evidence for Flemister's statement comes from data contained in McClellan's own unrevised and unpublished "1985 South Suburban Housing Survey." Among many other items in what McClellan describes as "an extended essay" designed to provoke discussion, he asked a sample of 652 south suburban elected officials, realtors, businesspeople, and residents two questions. Asked their idea of a stable integrated neighborhood, most whites picked 20-33 percent black; most blacks picked 33-50 percent black. The disparity was more dramatic when asked their first choice of a neighborhood to live in themselves: two-thirds of the whites picked an all-white neighborhood; three-fifths of the blacks picked a neighborhood 50 percent or more black. (If this sounds a little bleak, McClellan himself reads it as a possible sign of hope that one-third of the whites chose an at least somewhat integrated setting.)

If it's hard to agree on what integration is (and there's a lot of plausibility in adding power sharing to the definition as well as mere interracial proximity), it's hard even to express the goal without sounding as if you're condemning all-black communities. After all, if resegregation is bad, and a resegregated community has gone from all-white to all-black--? On this Flemister is adamant: "The NAACP can never agree that there is such a thing as too many blacks in a community--or a 'desirable' number."

First off, neither the Housing Center nor its suburbs say that--and I have seen no evidence that they ever have. They do often say that there is not enough white demand for housing in their area, and they seek to stimulate more white demand. Now, more white home seekers does not mean fewer black home seekers, it means more home seekers total--that pie is infinitely expandable. It is true that more white home seekers in absolute numbers means a smaller percentage of black home seekers--but that has nothing to do with trying to reduce their actual numbers, or saying there are "too many blacks" anywhere.

As for the goal, the Housing Center prefers integration both for civic reasons ("It's more like what real life is all about," says Hazel Crest Human Relations Commission chair Henry Roberts) and for reasons of practicality, the white-dominated system being what it is. Klepper: "It would be remarkable if we had an all-black middle-class community. In some city neighborhoods"--Chatham for one--"we do, but in the suburbs you get massive disinvestment. Middle-class blacks will move out of resegregating neighborhoods--not because black people are there, but because they know the consequences of the white institutional racist system, banks and savings and loans and realtors and appraisers and businesses. Whites do not put money into what whites have nothing to do with. And without private investment, it's not going to work."

So what is the goal according to fair-housing activists?

"There is no right percentage," says Park Forest economic development officer Kathy Cardona. "The test, the measure, is who's looking" more than who is actually living there. "Eighty-twenty [white to black] is only something to start with, only a guideline. If Park Forest got to a solid ongoing 60-40, no problem. Where do you start to get concerned? It's not simple. You're judging [real estate] traffic here and in the surrounding area. You're looking at the trend in general. You're looking at why people are moving. It's just not that scientific."

Ask Hazel Crest's Joe Martin what percent is integration, he fires right back: "100 percent of those who can afford to buy here. . . . It is so irritating when realtors frame our program in terms of what is the right racial mix. We don't know either, but we know it does mean full and equal competition in the market.

"As long as they have the idea that we have a predetermined percent, they think we have to [try to] stop black demand. Now, if you owned an auto dealership and for three years only black people bought your cars, you'd say there's something wrong here, I want more sales. You wouldn't refuse to sell to the next black customer! After all, municipalities are tax supported, and the tax base depends on housing demand."

"There is no number that is integration," adds Chris Klepper. "It's a continuum and a process. There is a place at which you know blacks and whites are both competing in the market--where blacks feel comfortable, where whites are not moving out and are not fearful--whatever the numbers are.

"Every year we categorize neighborhoods, and we don't make close calls. But if you have an area where the traffic is 60 percent black and 40 percent white, when you know 80 percent of the metropolitan area is white, that gives you an idea that the dual housing market may be in operation. . . . Overall it's pretty simple to sit down and say, these areas need outreach to blacks, these to whites, and these are in between, they're OK."

The upshot of these annual determinations is the Housing Center's counseling program--which until this year has been overwhelmingly for renters--and some advertising. A financially qualified home seeker who comes in gets the center's policy card: "Our primary goal is to promote long-term racially diverse neighborhoods and communities. . . . We work with homeseekers individually to expand options to include the total marketplace, avoiding any limitations based on race. The final choice is always that of the individual." If agreeable, he or she will be shown some of the areas previously identified as likely to need some more black or white traffic, as the case may be.

"It's still choice limiting, and that's semantic garbage," snaps NAR's Bob Butters. "On the one hand, if I'm a realtor and I say, 'I'll show you anything but I'm not sure you'll be comfortable here,' it's no defense for me to say I wouldn't have limited their choice, I just gave them a little unsolicited advice--oh yes, that's a capital crime. On the other hand, if I'm a housing center and I give some unsolicited advice to a white person about living in an integrated community--but of course I'll show you anything you want--well, that is just wonderful, that's what we're supposed to do. If you tell me one is choice limiting and one isn't, that really is a crock of garbage."

Klepper insists that she's not steering in reverse: first, because Housing Center counselors are up-front and straightforward, instead of making assumptions about the buyer's interests; second, because they suggest new options rather than foreclosing existing ones; and finally because they are pro-integration rather than prosegregation. Integration and segregation are simply not on an equal footing in federal court decisions, HUD regulations, or state law. (According to the Illinois Real Estate License Act of 1983, a broker can lose his or her license if he or she does or says anything "so as to promote, or tend to promote, the continuance or maintenance of racially and religiously segregated housing, or so as to retard, obstruct or discourage racially integrated housing on or in any street, block, neighborhood or community.")

To put it another way, in Klepper's view the time is simply not ripe for a color-blind approach to housing. There is no way to overcome 80 years or more of legal segregation by pretending it never happened. But the power of the rhetoric of color blindness and free choice is so great that sometimes fair-housing advocates toss out the window not just the numbers, but the idea of integration itself as the goal. Alexander Polikoff, who as executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest has represented the Housing Center many times, wrote in 1984, "The purpose is to eliminate constraints on free choice . . . imposed by discriminatory practices and persisting effects of past discrimination. It is true that as an American I hope that the result of free choice will be a sizable number of integrated communities. But free choice, not racial balance, is the objective. If free choice leads to segregation rather than integration, so be it. Free choice is a higher value than integration."

This view does not land Polikoff in the camp of the resistant realtors because in his view a choice is not free if it is affected by "persisting effects of past discrimination." If black buyers fear they will not be welcomed into Crete or Orland Park; if white buyers fear their properties will depreciate in the Eastgate neighborhood of Park Forest or that they'll suffer crime in Harvey--then they are "self-steering." Until they have somehow been reeducated out of such notions, their choice is not "free."

The other side tends to see freedom as simply the absence of external constraints. LaVena Norris is chairman of Equal Opportunity in Housing for the (mostly black) Dearborn Real Estate Board: "If a southern suburb resegregates--if whites move out naturally and blacks move in--there's nothing wrong with that, as long as things are not done to keep whites there or to keep blacks out. We're talking about a natural process." Or as the South Suburban Board's Al Pearson puts it, "Affirmative marketing from a realtor's perspective is giving the individual free choice to buy wherever. His decision should not be influenced by anyone." To suggest Hazel Crest when the prospect mentioned Homewood would be to step into a swamp, to infringe on the prospect's freedom to live where he or she wants.

Both sides seem to buy the notion of freedom as something that can only occur in a vacuum, when certain contaminating influences--whether old racist epithets or fair-housing counseling--are removed. In real life, where people have some idea of where they want to live before they call anyone up, freedom is relative, not absolute--and never simple. Christine Klepper's own experience--from the 1970s, before she became professionally involved in the issue--speaks to the point.

"I was 24; we lived in Park Forest, had two kids, and we were looking for our first house. I didn't know anything. The agent asked if we had considered Chicago Heights. Huh? I thought it was 'for' blacks. That's what I thought. I thought it was industrial. I thought it wasn't safe. All these things. That agent took me and drove me around Chicago Heights"--for whatever reasons, much as a Housing Center counselor might do today. "We bought a house there, lived there eight years, and it was great. I've always been grateful to that agent for opening my eyes."

Did he interfere with her freedom? Or enhance it?

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

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