Housing Ad Bias Alleged

White-only Faces Disturb Black Buyer

April 05, 1991|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

A Pasadena development is the subject of a $1 million civil suit that claims a newspaper advertising campaign that featured only whites discouraged prospective black buyers.

U.S. District Judge Norman P.Ramsey rejected a motion Wednesday by Sterling Homes Corp. to dismiss the suit, paving the way for a federal jury trial on the issue of discriminatory real estate advertising.

The trial is scheduled to begin April 15. Both sides say an out-of-court settlement is unlikely.

The suit was filed in April 1990 by Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a housing watchdog group, and Kim Fenwick-Schafer, a black Baltimore resident who was looking for a home in the fall of 1989.

In a pretrial deposition, Fenwick-Schafer saidthat the ads picturing only white people signaled to her "whites only apply." She said she feared "maybe a cross would be burned in our yard" or "a brick comes through a window" if she moved where she did not feel welcome.

Neither Fenwick-Schafer nor the watchdog group visited the Pasadena town house development, which is integrated. The sole issue raised in the case is the effect and legality of the ads.


Over a 25-month period ending in early 1990, Sterling published 70 advertisements in The Sun depicting 132 whites and no blacks. Forty-eight of those ads were for the half-completed 458-unit Villages of Stoney Beach near the Brandon Shores power plant in Pasadena; the rest were for the condominiums of Red Fox Farm in Perry Hall. Each adran with an "Equal Housing Opportunity" statement and logo.

The plaintiffs say Sterling's omission of black models in a metropolitan area market that is 26 percent black violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The law bans publication of ads "with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap or national origin."

Company officials referred all inquiries to its attorney, Theodore Sherbow, who called the lawsuit "un-American" and "unacceptable."

"This lawsuit claims that when black readers look at a real estate advertisement with only white models in it they are being toldthey are not wanted as purchasers," Sherbow said. "Sterling Homes strongly disagrees.

"This lawsuit has an un-American ring to it because the plaintiffs are saying that advertising should be judged by the color of the skin of the model in the advertisement. That approach is unacceptable. The equal opportunity housing logo appearing in eachad proves Sterling's position," Sherbow said, reading from a prepared statement.

Sherbow said if BNI or Fenwick-Schafer's real interest was to make Sterling aware that "some people were super-sensitive" about the perceived bias in their ad campaign, it could have contacted the developer before filing the suit.

Christopher Brown, representing Fenwick-Schafer and BNI, took exception to the "un-American" remark.

"It's very American to prevent discrimination against blacks, or maybe the problem is housing discrimination against blacks is all too American," Brown said. Brown noted a 1988 congressional study that found that "20 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, discrimination and segregation in housing continues to be pervasive." The congressional findings resulted in amendments strengthening the act.


The local suit is not the first case raising the issue ofracial representation in real estate advertising.

In January, a New York federal appeals court refused to dismiss a suit against The New York Times that claimed it may have violated the Fair Housing Act by publishing real estate ads from 1968 to 1988 with virtually no black models, except in connection with homes available in mostly black neighborhoods.

The Times argued that this reading would result in "racial quotas" for ads. But the court said "representation" of blackmodels to avoid a racial message in an ad "is a far cry" from the controversial use of quotas in employment and college admissions.

Afederal district court dismissed a similar case last year involving the Cincinnati Inquirer.

Both cases are under appeal and may go tothe U. S. Supreme Court.

Federal courts in Washington and Richmond also have ruled against developers and advertisers for discriminatory practices.

In Washington, 22 real estate estate developers, sales companies and advertising agencies signing an agreement in April 1987 with the district's Office of Human Rights to settle complaints that their newspaper advertising was racially discriminatory because it displayed only white models.

The companies agreed to feature black models in 33 percent of their newspaper, television and other advertising, a percentage that reflects the number of blacks living in the Washington area.

The Washington Post signed an agreement in August 1986 that required 25 percent of models appearing in its real estate advertising to be black.

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