Allentown, like so many cities, has challenges that, under the best of circumstances, cause disinvestment, concentration of poverty, diminishing tax base, substandard housing and public school issues that feed on each other, accelerating as they do. Even a mayor as good as Ed Pawlowski must wonder whether God is on his side.
The Community Action Lehigh Valley has a long history of joining the cause, fighting the good fight, hoping to improve the odds. Our approach rejects the notion that the way to fight poverty is to focus on helping the winners get out of our distressed urban neighborhoods and leaving the so-called losers behind. Instead, we have developed a wide range of tools to make the neighborhoods a place where the winners want to stay and there are no losers. That means leveling the playing field, because a neighborhood can’t function when its marketplace is dysfunctional.
For years we have gotten scattered reports of white homebuyers being steered out of the city by real estate agents who, no doubt, thought they were doing the right thing to help someone buy into the best neighborhood and school district they could afford. On its surface, that might not be a bad thing.
That practice is wrong, though, when one steers some people but not others, especially when the “others” are people of color or other protected classes; it’s a violation of the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that’s been in place for decades.
We are here today to release the results of testing that was done here in Allentown. Mayor Ed Pawlowski, a resident, with his young family, of a beautiful row house in downtown Allentown, directed a small grant of $25,000 to Community Action to fund the study and we hired a well-regarded non-profit called the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia, to send trained individuals posing as homebuyers, both white and minority, to test real estate agents on their compliance with the law. This is an approach that courts have endorsed and HUD has funded. The results were even worse than our collection of anecdotes over the years led us to expect.
The testers all presented solid buying credentials – a good job at a reputable, well-known employer, and a good credit history; the only difference between them was their racial and/or ethnic background. Each tester told their real estate agent that they wanted to buy a house in the City of Allentown.
We weren’t even particularly secretive about it: several years ago, I was invited to speak at one of the Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors’ luncheon meetings and bluntly warned the 200 or so industry professionals present that we would pursue testing because only the most naive would deny that violations of fair housing laws were pervasive. Realtors lined up after the meeting to tell me how much they agreed and even offered names of people they knew were violating the law. Even once we started the testing I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut, telling many, many people what we were doing.
But the testing that was conducted from March to December of 2011turned up what simply cannot be whitewashed: out of 33 tests that were conducted, 73% came back conclusively disparate treatment; 24% came back inconclusive. Sadly, only 3%, just a single test – just a single test out of 33 – came back conclusively appropriate treatment under the law.
Much of what we found was white buyers being steered out of the city while most minority buyers were not; white buyers getting better service, like prompt return calls while minority buyers did not; we found one tested agent did not show a single listing to both testers, with white testers being shown houses not just not in Allentown but as far away as the western fringe of the county.
As a child I remember wondering what it was that made people who looked like my father say and do such unconscionable things to people whose skin was different. I was being raised in a church, taught in school the most fundamental principles that made our country great, and heard a lot of great music that stressed “all the world over people just want to be free.”
Most people who look like me believe they are honorable, that they embrace those fundamental, patriotic principles. I believe that. They also often believe that the so-called “race card” is played too freely and that, in modern America, the playing field is finally level.
But these results are just too compelling to the contrary. Think about the implications:
Few markets respond to the basic economic laws of how supply and demand affect prices like the housing market does. So, steering the majority of buyers – white buyers whom Census data will show have higher incomes – out of the city denies every city resident the wealth that comes from appreciating home values driven by the kind of demand that a healthy market brings. When those buyers are steered elsewhere, not only are those left behind denied the ability to accumulate assets, but the property owners in communities to which they are steered can accumulate a disproportionate share of those assets.
Under the Fair Housing Act, we could have pursued prosecutions. But I would rather engage than condemn.
We approached the leadership of the Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors with the results of our testing; I was told by professionals in my industry that the Realtors would never cooperate, that we should pursue prosecution. But I knew otherwise. I knew that the association run by Ryan Conrad would be anxious to do the right thing. And I was right. Ryan Conrad, with support from his board of directors, led by Coldwell Banker broker Andrea Decker, developed a series of proposals in response to our requests, that will go a long way toward helping the Lehigh Valley move its housing market from one of segregation to one that is inclusive. Ryan’s comments are the real news of today’s press conference.
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[NOTE TO READERS: WE WILL ADD THE COMMITMENTS THE REALTORS MADE WHEN WE HAVE A COMPLETE DOCUMENT.]