'Sold' signs to rise again Ban was remnant of blockbusting panics in 1970s

Realtors lobby for repeal

Baltimore's ban ends May 1

Balto. County expected to act soon

April 13, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The real estate "sold" sign -- banned for decades after becoming the symbol of blockbusting that ruptured neighborhoods -- is about to return to front yards in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

The signs were prohibited in the 1970s, after some unscrupulous real estate agents tried to frighten white homeowners into dumping their properties when blacks moved next door.

Forests of signs appeared to fuel the panic that drove thousands of residents out of neighborhoods such as Edmondson Village, Belair-Edison and Randallstown.

And as more homes flooded the market, prices plummeted.

But now, with record numbers of residents leaving for the outlying suburbs, the city and county are about to lift their bans on "sold" signs.

They hope the signs will impart more confidence than a lingering "for sale" sign.

"Right now, it's in the interest of the city to market itself," City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said.

"We have a lot of quality neighborhoods, and we should show people there that people other than themselves have an interest."

Still, some community activists fear that the signs will only make matters worse.

"This might make people more anxious," said Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council.

"We would really prefer the signs be eliminated, period," said Barbara Aylesworth, executive director of Belair-Edison Housing Service in the city. "If the house is sold, they should just take the signs down."

How it began

In the 1970s, both the city and county tried to ban all real estate signs to calm the hysteria of blockbusting.

The sight of sale signs was widely believed to frighten white residents.

And "sold" signs were sometimes put up to discourage black buyers by letting them think a house was sold when it wasn't, said Frank D. Boston III, director of government relations for the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

In 1972, Baltimore County banned all real estate signs in the Liberty Road area, where blockbusting was occurring.

Although that law was declared unconstitutional, and a subsequent law allowing communities to petition for sign bans was repealed in 1989, the prohibition on "sold" signs lived on in a broader county sign law.

In the city, a 1974 law prohibiting all real estate signs was challenged by James Crockett, a black real estate agent who defied the ban by erecting a "for sale" sign in front of a house on McCulloh Street.

Eventually, the courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- upheld agents' right to put up real estate signs.

No one seems sure why the ban on "sold" signs has persisted in the city and county, though.

"I think it is the result of miscommunication," Boston said.

"Sold" signs are permitted in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

During the past year, the Realtors' board lobbied officials in Baltimore and Baltimore County to repeal the bans on "sold" signs, pointing out the court rulings.

Boston argued that sold signs not only are good advertising for real estate agents, but also send a positive message about neighborhoods.

False impression

"Too many 'for sale' signs often give a negative impression that there is mass flight without replenishment," he said.

A bill passed by the City Council and signed into law by the mayor will lift Baltimore's ban at the end of this month.

"Seeing a 'sold' sign might stimulate more interest," conceded Barbara Ruland, first vice president of the Ednor Gardens-Lakeside Civic Association, whose community has fought against such signs in the city.

But she and other activists would prefer another sign ban like the old one.

'See the daffodils'

"It had a wonderful effect. You could see the daffodils instead of signs," said Vincent P. Quayle, director of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

He questioned why the city wants to permit real estate agents to advertise a sale before closing: "It isn't honest advertising. They have a contract to sell, but it isn't sold."

In Baltimore County, where the council is expected to rule on a broader sign package this spring, Campbell is willing to accept "sold" signs if it means enacting tougher restrictions on business signs that clutter Liberty Road.

"Something is better than nothing," she said.

P. David Fields, director of the county office that seeks to revitalize older neighborhoods, doubts that most people will notice the word "sold" on a real estate sign, but is willing to give it a try.

"Hopefully," he said, "it would give us a little bit of a lift."

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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