A little head-scratcher for the Fourth of July: It seems odd, in the New York City of 2007, to think about Fair Housing. Everyone is priced out of Manhattan apartments, black, brown and white alike, and it is tough to imagine that, if a purple customer came falling out of the heavens with a suitcase full of cash, brokers wouldn’t trip all over themselves to serve him.
But we didn’t always live in today’s utopia, where the majority is color-blinded by greed. A mere generation ago, people experienced housing discrimination based on the color of their skin. And so I don’t sound like a dry civics textbook, let me tell one little anecdote from my own childhood:
It is the early 1970s. I am a white little girl living in the South, in a white neighborhood where big houses are surrounded by trees and lakes. A new family moves in next door. The girl my age is my dream best friend in every way: she is kind and adventurous, but she can run way faster than me and her daddy knows how to catch catfish. Her older sister, about 15, is a cheerleader, and when she is in a good mood she teaches us routines with her pompoms. However, she’s not in a good mood very often, because not long after the family moves in someone fires a BB gun through her bedroom window — because she and her whole family are black.
This is what “Fair Housing” means to me. It is not about posters and platitudes; it is about the lessons I learned when my dad and one other white neighbor went door-to-door and explained that there had been an incident with a stray shot, just some kids probably, but surely ev-ry-body understood that that kind of foolishness would not be tolerated. It is not about testers, or the fear of testers; it about realizing that my friend was brave just for being my friend. I didn’t learn this in real estate class when I was 38; I learned it in fourth grade, going into my neighbor’s house after school, getting some lemonade or juice out of the refrigerator, and then helping her with her chores. We were very good kids; although we occasionally messed with illegal fireworks and snuck some looks at a Hustler magazine we found in the woods once, we always did our chores. Whenever we did one of our regular tasks, making her parents’ bed, we were always very careful not to disturb anything on the nightstands, from the Kleenex boxes to the guns.
Today I’m not perfect, but I do try hard to be good. The “Fair Housing” speech is one of the first things new customers — who so far have come from Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Russian, Indian, and Jewish backgrounds — hear from me. And yet I have to admit I was kind of shocked when I read The New York Times this weekend, and the lawyer for our local real estate board was arguing that you shouldn’t advertise a house as being in a certain school district.
All over the country, certain good school districts can be code for “white:” I get that. But when my clients look at big apartments, they don’t generally do it to have a place to house their pet ferrets. They do it because they have kids, and in my city, they often want those kids to have the resources of P.S. 234 (the Tribeca elementary school, sometimes called the best public school in the city).
And telling them whether or not they’re zoned for that district seems a far cry from the Fair Housing violations that have occurred recently. In Brooklyn, for example, one of the big brokerage firms, part of the NRT family, was recently accused of having an agent hand out maps with certain neighborhoods circled. (The agent reportedly said something like, “this is where the white areas are.”)
While the CEO of that brokerage has expressed hope the company would be vindicated and stated “zero tolerance” for this sort of thing, it seems to me a long way from that kind of deliberate steering to letting buyers know they’re getting a great school for their money. When I thought about this earlier this week, I felt like providing that kind of information was not incompatible with Fair Housing.
The good school I’m thinking of, by the way, is 71 percent white, 17 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 6 percent Black, and 6 percent Hispanic. I wrote on my Web site two days ago: “If that is not an acceptable level of diversity, we as an entire community — agents and home buyers and people not in the market, people with kids and people without kids — need to do something about it.”
Well, what a difference two days makes. I still believe that we need to do something to promote diversity, or we all suffer. When boundaries develop — whether those of race, or color, or religion, or country of origin — we all suffer. But two days ago, it seemed to be possible to tackle part of the task of community integration in the schools. Now, in the wake of Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1 et al., where Chief Justice John Roberts said that race cannot be used as a factor to attain school diversity, the question is raised: holy heck, what on earth do we do?
My America cannot be re-segregated; as a country, she is too great. But if America’s schools are taken out of the equation — which feels wrong to me, down to my bones — housing becomes one of the only frontiers left. And I am ashamed to say, I don’t know what the Fair Housing policy is for that.
Alison Rogers is a licensed salesperson, and author of “Diary of a Real Estate Rookie.”