Realtors Embrace Neighborhood Diversity

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In
a remarkable meeting last week on Ferguson and the St. Louis housing market,
St. Louis area realtors spoke frankly about how residential racial segregation
undermines the area, and their role in creating the problem.

The
meeting began like so many others, with someone blaming the news media for the
area’s problems. Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing, blamed
television and newspaper reporters for giving “a jaded and distorted view of
the region.”

But
then, something extraordinary happened. Realtors said that they themselves had
to take responsibility for the way the area is portrayed. A majority of the
over 240 realtors present at the conference applauded those remarks.

Dawn
Kennedy, the CEO of the St. Louis Association of Realtors (SLAR), said, “the
perception of north county was formed by the St. Louis Association of
Realtors.” She described posters SLAR produced of different blocks in 1919, in
which the houses inhabited by African Americans were crossed out and a headline
screamed “You could be next!”

While
that poster was from a long time ago, Kennedy said, “the problems we created
still exist, and we have a responsibility to address them.”

Will
Jordan, executive director of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing
Opportunity Council, pointed to lawsuit by the City of Florissant and the Equal
Housing Opportunity Council against Gundaker Real Estate in 1998 in talking
about how area realtors continued to engage in blockbusting tactics into the
1990s and helped drive white flight from Florissant to St. Charles County.

Kennedy
said diversity promotes economic and social growth, but added, “It doesn’t
happen naturally.” She called on SLAR to support community leaders who support
policies that promote integrated neighborhoods, and also to do more to promote
integration within the realtors’ own association.

“We
have to start with our own members,” she told the conference. “They’re afraid
of going to Ferguson,” she said. And, when realtors are afraid of an area, they
can’t sell it.

Jashana
Perez, a realtor from Chesterfield, also urged other realtors to be more
open-minded about the communities they show. She talked about a retired, white
couple from Ballwin, who came to her wanting to find a house in St. Peters.
They knew exactly what kind of house they wanted, she said, but they couldn’t
find it in St. Peters or St. Charles County.

“I
did some research and found a home that matched their criteria in Ferguson.
They loved it. They went to some events in the neighborhood, and that’s where
they live now,” she said. “So, don’t just take your clients’ word for where
they want to live. Do some research and encourage them to explore other
communities where the houses are that meet their criteria.”

The
conference was the first public meeting by STL 20/20, a five year effort by
SLAR to promote strong, healthy, diverse communities. STL 20/20 grew out of the
association’s Ferguson Task Force, which was initiated in response to member
suggestions following the rioting in Ferguson in August. The National
Association of Realtors is funding the effort, which the association bills as a
model for how realtor associations should address residential segregation.

A STL 20/20 brochure for realtors emphasizes that most
segregation in St. Louis is based on race, not economic status, and that
segregation is linked to slower economic growth. It advocates “Smart Growth”
policies to foster racially diverse neighborhoods, and offers advice on how to
ethically 
respond to client questions about race and neighborhoods.

After the conference, Kennedy told CNR that the events in mid-August in
Ferguson prompted her to research the causes of the unrest, “and I learned we
bear some of the responsibility,” she said. “We recognize we need to change
some or our perceptions in order to keep the market healthy.”