Racism in real estate

By SEAN FLYNN  |  May 13, 2009
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In one white neighborhood of Boston, a woman showing a black couple through the home she is trying to sell excuses herself to talk with her neighbors, who've been eyeing the house since the tour began. "I had to tell them I wouldn't be selling to those people," she later tells the real-estate agent handling the house. "I am really against discrimination, but I just cannot put them into a neighborhood like this." Moving a black family into that neighborhood, the broker says, means "you risk having that person shot, having his house burned down, even having the landlord's house burned."

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In an all-white section of Hyde Park, a well-to-do black family scraps plans to buy a house after a neighbor warns the home will be "egged or torched" if blacks move in. In the weeks that follow, the white owners trying to sell the property are harassed by anonymous callers who snarl "nigger lover" and hang up, and neighborhood kids who throw rocks, eggs, and scraps of wood at the house.

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In other white neighborhoods, real-estate agents who see discrimination as the moral cost of doing business screen out black applicants over the phone, listening carefully for accents, or even names, that merely sound black. They may even steer the conversation toward certain key words.

"Most Southern blacks," says one broker, "will say 'bet-rhum' instead of bedroom." Hearing "Dudley station" pronounced "Dut-ley station" is another telltale tipoff, says another real-estate source. And a broker who can't tell just by listening can usually figure out a caller's race just by the phone number he or she leaves: the prefixes 296, 298, 427, 442, and 445 are all connected to phones in either Roxbury or Mattapan, both of which are less than 10 percent white.

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When he discovers home seekers are minorities, says one broker, "I'll just try to discourage them any way I can." If clients want big units, he'll have only small ones; high-security buildings will become dangerous; good neighborhoods will be run-down; appointments will be difficult, if not impossible, to schedule. Sixty to 70 percent of the people who call his office looking for housing are either black or Hispanic, he says; yet 99 percent of the people he places in units are white.

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When a caller's skin color can't be deciphered over the phone, few specifics are offered. Ten two-bedroom apartments scattered throughout both black and white enclaves, for instance, will be described to the caller only as "a few" units without any reference to location. "Then if a black does come in, you can use your steering dodge" and show that person only those apartments in black areas, says one agent who works mostly in white neighborhoods southwest of downtown.

Although it is hard to determine exactly how widespread such tactics are, there is evidence that such discrimination is carried out on a large scale and that it undoubtedly plays a large role in keeping the Boston area dramatically segregated. If the metropolitan area's racial distribution were mapped out in color-coded push-pins, the end picture would be an island of black surrounded by a nearly unbroken sea of white.

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