Pages from A Popular History of Grand Rapids

New River Free Press, June 1976/Reprint

How 5 citizens discovered

what had happened to

open housing in G. R .

By Bill Carpenter

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the intent of promoting community knowledge, debate, and discussion, New River publishes this personal report of a pioneering study in GR [Grand Rapids, MI] [New River Free Press, June 1976].

It was a Saturday morning in January. We had met on six of the last ten or eleven days. The work was slow, our deadline approaching, and we still had much to do. But we had come a long way. A year and a half before we were just beginning the Grand Rapids Real Estate Audit on fair housing practices. Then our endless discussions, were of which realtors to "test" for racial discrimination and steering, how to train testers, even how to find them. We poured over audits from groups in other cities--Dallas, Torrence-Carson (California), Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Akron, and others.

Since that beginning, we had recruited twenty volunteer couples (ten black, ten white), to see how realtors would treat them and where (black or white neighborhoods) they would be shown homes. The couples were matched according to age, number of children, income, etc. the only significant difference was in the color of their skin. We held four training sessions for the testers, sent them out on numerous Saturday and Sunday afternoons, thoroughly debriefed each couple after each visit, combed over their notes and ours, and tabulated all the bits of evidence into the pattern that emerged: yes, there is different treatment of whites and blacks by the real estate companies we surveyed. Whites are shown to predominantly white areas, blacks to predominantly black or changing areas. Our report speaks for itself.

Who are we and why did we do it?

Nancy Baumbach in belonging to the League of Women Voters for several years has been involved with an organization that has worked for support of fair and open housing laws at all levels of government. The League was instrumental in getting fair housing ordinances passed in the City of Grand Rapids. Nancy is now vice president of the local League and lives in Ottawa Hills.

Mike Smolenski is an attorney, avid family man, and is active with Garfield Park Neighborhood Association.

Anne Schreuder is coordinator of the Social Research Center at Calvin College, a resident of Heritage Hill, and a board member of National Neighbors.

Bob Burnap headed the Neighborhood Alliance.

I am the equal opportunities specialist at HUD-FHA [Housing and Urban Development-Federal Housing Authority] in Grand Rapids and the "country cousin" member, residing in Newaygo County.

One thing we all seemed to share--a desire to see integrated living come about. the suburbs are largely white, the inner city black, the middle city has neighborhoods which are either predominantly black, predominantly white, or changing from white to black. Few neighborhoods seem to stabilize as integrated. Blacks seemingly only move to neighborhoods where blacks already live or to white neighborhoods close to predominantly black areas.

The question we had repeatedly heard and had asked ourselves and which the audit was designed to answer is "How much of this is free choice and what part do realtors play in the process?" Those neighborhoods that become integrated seem to be put in a separate market from white areas--a market where only blacks are shown, one in which middle class whites, mortgage lending institutions, and (as the isolation continues) middle class blacks do no participate. Comparably priced housing in white areas remain seemingly inaccessible to blacks. Mike and Anne had seen this pattern beginning to take shape in Garfield Park. Nancy had seen it before in Ottawa Hills where it was successfully thwarted.

The Ottawa Hills experience showed overt block-busting which played on fears of loss of property value in order to create panic selling by whites. Ottawa Hills is now a stable integrated area, one in which blacks and whites move in and out. The isolation of Ottawa Hills has been halted by vigorous action of the local neighborhood association. Nancy, Mike, and I noticed the continuing pattern, elsewhere in the city. White areas further removed from the inner city remained white. And yet, all homes listed with members of the Multiple Listing Service (practically every property in the metropolitan area) are available for realtors to show. Each real estate office has a copy of every home listed with the MLS--and salespeople depend on the cards to know what's available to prospective purchasers. The MLS, more than anything, is what makes the Grand Rapids area--Caledonia, Byron Center, Jennison, Ada, Sparta, Walker--one housing market. many of the realtors operating in my home area, Grant, are Grand Rapids realtors--putting many Grant properties in the MLS. Yet, I have not seen, in my three years there, a black family move anywhere near. Mexican Americans, yes; probably because ours is a former temporary residence for many Chicanos when they were migrant farm workers.

In my business dealings at FHA, I would hear of the fine motives of the realtors. I have come to truly believe that many of the real estate brokers (proprietors as opposed to salespeople) have no malice toward fair housing. The problem is: they are not committed to policing their sales forces to assure that race, or ethnicity, has no part in the sales transaction. There are those, of course, who are more racist, arrogant, patronizing, with many myths regarding behaviour and values of blacks. Generally, however, the brokers are well-heeled business people with an interest in their communities as well as their businesses and their reputations, but who have closed their eyes to a problem for so long and so comfortably, they do not know the problem exists anymore. And perhaps for some (one can only guess at such motives) racial change in a neighborhood means housing turnover, sales, commissions, a buck. And fighting the perceived trend can lose them turnover, sales, commissions, a buck.

Nancy and her family moved from a northwest suburb of Grand Rapids (Walker) to Ottawa Hills--they wanted an integrated living experience for their children and themselves; and they simply like Ottawa Hills. Anne and Mike have a level-desire for integrated neighborhoods. They see really good housing values in the inner and middle city go unnoticed by most white home buyers. Again, they suspected, because realtors had written off the areas as "black," and that somehow, these areas were now undesirable to whites.

So there is our group. We have grown a lot in these last months. We had each other's ego needs to satisfy; we had to bolster each other. At times, one or two of us would suffer from anxiety, tiredness, and frustration at not moving quickly enough. At other times, all of us had these together. We helped each other work through these and into the periods when we moved well together, each picking up an item the other had dropped, one complementing the other. We have a bond now, and one we want to share. An audit has been done once--by green folks--us. Now we and others can build on this experience. New groups need not repeat our mistakes or spend hours pondering alternative moves such as methods of training, devising data forms for use by testers, or methods of recruiting testers. Certainly, there are things we should differently and variations others would use. But a basis of experience and of audit findings has been gathered. Now I think we can continue--with more confidence, more speed, and some new blood. One of our goals was and is to generate an on-going fair housing group to use this data to effect changes by realtors, to conduct other audits, to continue the pressure for change, to educate the public, and perhaps move into other areas which affect our living--such as financial practices.

We turned over the information, raw data included, to the U. S. Department of Justice for examination and possible civil action by the U. S. against any or all of the ten firms involved in the audit. We also gave the audit report to the Grand Rapids Real Estate Board--with very little official response as yet, except to cite 1962 and 1973 fair housing support the Board took. we have asked the board of directors to discuss the matter, so far to no avail. The Board wants the names of the ten companies and the raw data before they will discuss the issues. we are not prepared to give out names--we did not conduct the audit to publicly castigate a few firms, or a few salespeople, when, we believe, the audit seems to show that the problem is industry-wide.

Our efforts are now moving into a new phase. We didn't collect data just to study the problem. We want to have some effect on realtor behavior and feel the Real Estate Board should take responsibility for assisting realtors, educating them, and enforcing their fair housing code of ethics. Now we will need to generate community awareness of the problem, and call for solutions from citizens, civil rights groups, church groups, and anyone interested in fair housing, neighborhood visibility, and fair play.

A New River Free Press Reprint/June 1976

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
Popular History Project

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Posted on Wednesday, July 6, 2005 at 04:13PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment