Federal housing regulators have filed discrimination charges on behalf of a Chicago-area radio personality and comedian who thought he’d found a dream home for his family, only to have the sellers pull it off the market in the midst of negotiations.
George Willborn — a comedian whose resume includes appearances on Black Entertainment Television’s "Showtime at the Apollo" and HBO’s "Def Comedy Jam" — and his wife Peytyn had a $1.7 million offer on the table to purchase an 8,000-square-foot, five-bedroom mansion in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.
Sellers Daniel and Adrienne Sabbia — and their listing agent and broker, Prudential Rubloff Properties — ran afoul of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) when the Sabbias wrapped up several days of negotiations by pulling their home off the market rather than responding with a counteroffer.
In an interview under oath, the Sabbias’ listing agent, Jeffrey Lowe, "admitted that while he was representing the Sabbias, Daniel Sabbia told Lowe that he would prefer not to sell his home to an African-American," HUD said in a complaint filed Monday against the Sabbias, Lowe and Prudential Rubloff.
The Willborns, who have a son and daughter, are African-American.
According to HUD, Lowe qualified his testimony, saying that "if it was for the right price (Daniel Sabbia) did not care who bought the house.’ "
"Racial fairness is important at all income levels," John Trasviña, HUD assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. "Civil rights enforcement must be the effective shield against housing discrimination."
Lowe declined a request for comment, saying "it is the policy of Prudential Rubloff not to comment or discuss matters regarding pending litigation." Executives at the brokerage did not respond to requests for comment.
The Sabbias’ attempts to sell their home began when they listed it on Jan. 8, 2008, for $1.99 million. They took the home off the market briefly in November 2008, relisting it on April 6, 2009, at a reduced asking price of $1.799 million.
By the time the Willborns toured the property in January 2010, the home had been for sale for nearly two years.
"The Willborns liked the (property) so much that they called their son and daughter and asked them to immediately come and view the home," HUD’s complaint said.
Daniel Sabbia — whose sister and brother-in-law live in the house next door — was sitting in his car in his home’s driveway and saw the Willborns leave, HUD said.
The Willborns "fell in love with" the home and made a $1.5 million offer the same day through their agent, Dylcia Cornelious of RE/MAX 2000. The offer included $75,000 in earnest money and a proposed Feb. 25 closing date.
Negotiations ensued, and the Sabbias countered with $1.75 million and a later closing date.
The day after the showing, the Willborns offered $1.65 million for the home if the deal included the televisions in the theater and living rooms.
The Sabbias made a final counteroffer of $1.7 million with an April 1, 2010, closing date, which the Willborns accepted the same day. A sales contract was drawn up.
The same day, Lowe allegedly informed Cornelious that "my seller researched your buyer," or words to that effect, which Cornelious took to mean that they had Googled him. In interviews with HUD, Lowe and Sabbia allegedly "admitted that they felt (the Willborns) were highly qualified to buy the subject property."
Daniel Sabbia allegedly told HUD investigators that he understood Willborn was a comedian who drove "a Bentley car."
On Jan. 9 — four days after Lowe had forwarded the contract to the Sabbias for their signature — Cornelious inquired why they had not yet approved the sale.
According to the complaint, Lowe told Cornelious that the "reality" of selling the house was "just hitting" Adrienne Sabbia.
"Cornelious replied incredulously that there was ‘no way’ that the ‘reality’ of selling had not hit Adrienne Sabbia in the two years that the home had been on the market," the complaint said. Cornelious allegedly told Lowe that she believed that it "suddenly hit (Sabbia) only when she was confronted with black buyers, or words to that effect," the complaint said.
Cornelious, an agent with 12 years of experience, sent Lowe a text message later that day saying the Sabbias’ actions appeared racist, warning, "this will absolutely be a case for fair housing."
Lowe allegedly texted Cornelious back the next day — a Sunday — saying he believed the Sabbias’ delay in signing the contract was "a seller vs. seller issue, not a seller vs. buyer issue," and that he did not think it was about race. Lowe said he expected the contract would be signed that day or the next.
Two days later, Lowe said the Sabbias would not sign the sales contract, and that they were taking the home off the market.
According to the complaint, Lowe gave the Willborns "various reasons for why the Sabbias decided not to sell." HUD said in the complaint that the Willborns were told Adrienne Sabbia "had changed her mind about moving, the Sabbias could not find a suitable new home to move to and they wanted to keep their children in their current schools."
In an interview with HUD, the Sabbias allegedly said they refused to sign the contract because Adrienne Sabbia wanted the full asking price of $1.799 million.
But between the time they received the sales contract and Jan. 12, the day they took the property off the market, the Sabbias did not offer the Willborns the opportunity to purchase the home for the full asking price, HUD said. In HUD’s view, that was where they ran afoul of the Fair Housing Act.
On Jan. 28, the Willborns filed complaints with HUD against the Sabbias.
On Feb. 1, the Sabbias allegedly told Lowe to offer the Willborns the opportunity to buy the home, with all of its furniture, for $1.799 million.
The Willborns declined the offer after learning it was made only after the Sabbias learned of their complaint with HUD, HUD reported.
The property was relisted on March 8 for $1.799 million, but Lowe is no longer representing the Sabbias.
Lowe told HUD that he thought it was "unusual" that the Sabbias would not sign the sales contract, because "normally a buyer and seller are both motivated to sign a contract once you feel like you negotiate the terms."
According to his website, Lowe has been in the real estate business since 1996, and exceeded $100 million in sales in each of the past five years.
Lowe also allegedly told HUD he was surprised because the Sabbias had given him no indication that they were having second thoughts.
HUD has charged the Sabbias with discriminating against not only the Willborns but the Willborns’ agent, Cornelious, by refusing to sign the sales contract and by taking the property off the market.
Lowe and Prudential Rubloff are named in the complaint for allegedly conveying the Sabbias’ refusal to sign the sales contract to the Willborns, and for taking the property off the market.
The Willborns have suffered "economic loss, emotional distress, inconvenience, and a lost housing opportunity," the complaint said.
According to the complaint, George Willborn has said the experience "has changed who he is and his ‘core belief system.’ "
Willborn said he now finds he is less trusting of others and their actions, and that the Sabbias "have denied him the American dream he worked so hard to attain," the complaint said.
The Willborns "are surprised that something like this could happen in the year 2010," according to the complaint.
Cornelious also suffered emotional distress, the complaint said, and "was offended as an African-American person, a professional in the real estate business, and as a friend of the Willborns."