Group that fights housing bias is party to problem


As we live in a time of general mistrust between some people of different skin color, we come now to the legal matter of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. vs. the Sterling Homes Corp. and its advertising firm, Jordan-Azzam Inc.

Baltimore Neighborhoods fights discrimination in housing, real and perceived. Sterling Homes is a builder of houses, including some $90,000 town houses in an Anne Arundel County development called Stoney Beach, which had no complaints of discrimination until recent business involving newspaper advertising.

Jordan-Azzam is the creator of those Stoney Beach ads. It is an advertising agency that is blameless until now in matters of race.

Now comes the problem: In the whole series of Stoney Beach ads, which ran between 1988 and 1990, quite a few faces of happy homeowner models could be seen. All were white. To persons at Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., this represented veiled and sneaky discrimination.

Naturally, there is a serious history to be considered here, of all sorts of dirty tactics committed through the years in real estate offices which perpetuated not only all-white neighborhoods but the continuing antagonism between the races.

This is why there are now practices in real estate advertising intended to show good faith. In some of the Stoney Beach ads, for example, there was this line: "We are pledged to equal housing opportunity throughout the nation. We encourage affirmative advertising in which there are no barriers to obtaining housing."

In other Stoney Beach ads, there ran a housing logo with an = sign within, along with the words "Equal Housing Opportunity."

All of the Stoney Beach ads carried one or the other of those messages.

Dwarfed by all those happy white models, however, this was seen as an empty gesture.

"We're not saying that those who did the ad campaigns for Stoney Beach intended to absolutely close the door to black customers," declared Christopher Brown, attorney for Baltimore Neighborhoods. "We're talking in terms of degrees.

"The defendants," Brown told a federal court jury two weeks ago, "intentionally used an all-white ad campaign in order to keep at a minimum the number of black people who would come and want to buy houses at Stoney Beach. We're not alleging they closed the door entirely. We're saying they tried to keep a lid on."

"Baloney," countered Theodore Sherbow, co-counsel for Sterling Homes. "For a 25-cent phone call, they could have saved the price of this whole lawsuit."

And U.S. District Judge Norman P. Ramsey agreed with Sherbow.

Finding insufficient evidence of intentional discrimination, Ramsey threw out the lawsuit 12 days ago, declaring lack of evidence that the federal Fair Housing Act, governing advertising of housing, had been violated.

But that's only part of the problem, which gets us back to Sherbow and the 25-cent phone call that never happened.

"If they really thought there was discrimination," said Sherbow, "why didn't they call Sterling Homes and make a complaint? Why didn't they call some government agency and make a complaint? Why did they jump right in with a lawsuit?"

No formal complaints ever were filed, not with the Maryland Human Relations Commission nor with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development nor with the NAACP.

The first word Sterling Homes ever got that anyone was upset, says Sherbow, was when they were handed the lawsuit.

Why did Baltimore Neighborhoods go straight to a lawsuit?

Ask those at the Towers at Harbor Court, in downtown Baltimore, or the Bomstein Agency, which handles Harbor Court's advertising.

They, too, were sued for all-white ads. But they quickly settled out of court: for $155,000 and a promise to use black models in future ads, plus $30,000 worth of free advertising for Baltimore Neighborhoods.

Sterling Leppo, owner of Sterling Homes, refused to settle out of court.

"When they asked me to take this case," said Sherbow, "I said, 'Look, I'm not gonna take a case where somebody discriminates against blacks.' I'm an old ACLU guy, I don't like any kind of discrimination. Leppo said, 'I don't discriminate. Whatever it costs, I want to fight this.'

"So that gets me to my big point: Why was there a suit? If you're upset, you call and complain. You mediate, you conciliate. I mean, this is a United Way agency. Don't you call and talk things out, and see if there's a problem? But they don't call us, they just sue us."

Yesterday, George Laurent, Baltimore Neighborhoods director, said this: "They don't take it seriously unless you sue them. It's like saying to criminals, 'Don't rob a bank, but we don't put you in jail.' If we had called them, they might have changed. But they don't really listen to those things."

In America, filing lawsuits has become part of an assembly-line process.

It's a reflex response to unhappiness, not always based on accurate information so much as the profit motive.

In court, Baltimore Neighborhoods attorney Brown told this to the jury: "We will not see proof that people knocked on the door and couldn't get in the sales office. You won't see proof that they said, 'No, sorry, no blacks are welcome.' We will present no proof whatsoever of any person who actually got to the door and wasn't let in the door."

There were no such cases. In fact, when Judge Ramsey tossed out the case, he took notice that Baltimore Neighborhoods had never received any complaints -- about the ads themselves, or about discriminatory practices by Sterling Homes or Stoney Beach -- before filing suit.

Housing discrimination is still a malignant problem in this country.

But so is the filing of empty lawsuits.

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