A "for sale" sign, similar to ones that can be seen in front of homes all over the Washington area, is causing quite a stir up in Baltimore.
A state Realtors' regulation prohibits the posting of "for sale" signs on lawns in certain areas of Baltimore, and according to the real estate broker who is forcing a court test of the regulation, the restriction is rooted in old racial feelings that go back to a time when whites would not sell their homes to blacks.
James Crockett, former chairman of the Maryland Real Estate Commission, said that the residents who favor such a ban "say it is to preserve the neighborhood, to protect the stability of the neighborhood." He equates that to saying residents want to have some control over who lives in the neighborhood.
"When blacks started moving into white neighborhoods in the late '50s, whites tried to get names of homeowners who were selling," Crockett said. He said a group of white homeowners purchased homes to prevent their sale to blacks. They would rent them or resell them to whom they chose. He said this plan fell through when there were too many blacks financially able to purchase homes in white areas of the city.
Joseph Koubek, a spokesman for the Northeast Community Organization that favors such a ban, said that there may be lingering racial fears, but said the overall concern is to prevent panic selling that would undervalue property and destabilize neighborhoods. Koubek said, "When the neighborhoods began to be integrated some 15 years ago, there was cause for some alarm because the rate of change accelerated. There were 'for-sale' signs on many streets."
He said that, when he rides through certain neighborhoods and sees a lot of "for sale" signs posted on the lawns, he immediately feels that there is a problem in the area. "I get the feeling that there is something wrong," and that would be enough to sway him if he were considering buying a house there.
"We are not trying to keep people who are not white out of the community," Koubek said. "The old-time whites may not want integration," but most people just want an orderly process of selling homes, he said.
Koubek explained that many northeastern neighborhoods have a good racial mix, and that it is not just white people who favor a sign ban: Some black residents have become active in the association. He said that he was surprised at the results of a survey conducted among the neighbors of the northeastern section of Baltimore: "Some people have found that blacks have proven to be darn good neighbors."
He added, "There's still a fear of not wanting to be the last white person on the block."
Alvin Monshower, of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, agreed with Crockett that the sign ban in certain areas of the northeastern section of Baltimore is "a racial matter."
According to Monshower, the neighborhood associations that support such a ban say that it is to prevent panic selling. "It's a silly theory," he said. "What they are saying is that, if you don't know people are leaving, you won't leave either."
Monshower said that all the real estate agents oppose the ban, but Koubek disagreed. He said that some real estate agents have supported the ban and some have testified in support of it before the real estate commission.
The ban only prevents licensed agents, not owners selling the house themselves, from posting "for sale" signs.
Crockett calls this a violation of people's First Amendment rights and a restaint of trade. He strongly believes the courts will find in his favor.
The current law allows the Board of Realtors to forbid signs in neighborhoods where residents petition for such a ban. At one time, Baltimore had a citywide ban on "for sale" signs, but that was struck down.
"I challenged that law," said Crockett. "The City of Baltimore took me to Equity Court, and I won. They appealed in the Circuit Court, and the decision was upheld. It then went on to the Court of Special Appeals, and the decision was reaffirmed there. Finally it made its way to" the Court of Appeals, the state's highest, which in March 1981 "rendered a decision that upheld the previous decisions."
He said that he posted a "for sale" sign recently in a neighborhood that bans it. "I am now waiting for the Maryland State Real Estate Commission to cite me," said Crockett. "I expect them to do so soon."
Monshower said that the whole process could take three to five years because of appeals, but added, "I think sooner or later [the courts] will strike down this ban."