Is Race-Steering History?

January 25, 1991

An 18-year-old Baltimore County law banning real estate agents from soliciting the purchase or sale of residences in person, by telephone or by mass circulars has been struck down. "Since the practice of blockbusting no longer exists in Baltimore County, Sec. 14-26 cannot now directly further the governmental interest by combating blockbusting, 'panic selling' or 'white flight'," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Harvey.

Are "panic selling" and "white flight" gone?

Perhaps. But Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. alleges in a pending suit that one Baltimore County real estate firm recently steered a black couple away from largely white Mount Washington toward predominantly black neighborhoods, while white house-hunters were told houses in comparable price ranges in Mount Washington were available. "It's amazing it's still out there," said George N. Laurent, executive director of the fair-housing group, of the alleged discrimination.

We are sympathetic toward the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and other litigants who argued before Judge Harvey that the Baltimore County anti-solicitation law -- which was never enforced -- unduly banned actions by one profession. But we also sympathize with community activists who witnessed a period of brazen block-busting and racial panic and do not want their neighborhoods destabilized again. Or as one Liberty Road activist put it, "There are yet today Realtors who will take advantage of communities that are perceived as changing."

This problem area is charged with emotions and strong convictions. Even the boards of civil rights organizations are divided about whether bans on mass solicitation or prohibitions of real estate lawn signs provide anything but psychological crutches to a changing neighborhood. The only true cure against perceived neighborhood destabilization is the ability of people of different races to buy houses wherever they want.

Particularly in Baltimore County, where one's neighborhood strictly determines the schools children can attend, would-be buyers should have this freedom of choice. In a highly competitive marketplace largely operating through multiple-listed offerings, house-hunters should not hesitate to change agents -- who are sellers' agents, anyway -- if they feel an agent or agency is denying them access to all available houses.

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