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Group alleges agents steer home buyers by race

By Justin Boron

Originally from Fayette County, Linda Price said she was one of the first black people to move into her Pointe South neighborhood in Clayton County.

"I wanted to stay in a place where it was mixed," the 55-year old Ansley Pointe resident said.

Now, on her street, Price said she knows of only three white residents, a woman her age and an elderly couple.

"We need a diverse neighborhood," she said. "I would like it to be the way it was."

At the tail end of a demographic flip flop in the county, researchers and community activists say problems with racial segregation persist, with much of the white population relegated to the southeast portion of the county, while areas in the north and west have become densely populated with African-Americans.

A report released this week by the National Fair Housing Alliance identifies illegal and discriminatory real estate sales practices as a source of the segregation problem, which researchers say has a paralyzing effect on economic advancement and educational growth in minorities.

Through an investigation using trained housing officials, who posed as potential homebuyers, the alliance discovered several real estate agencies in the area that prodded their customers away from neighborhoods in which their demographic background was weakly represented.

In turn, real estate agents consistently showed buyers neighborhoods where the demographic makeup matched that of the buyer, the report says.

In a specific instance, the alliance claims some of the agents for Coldwell Banker, Joe T. Lane Reality in Jonesboro steered the alliance's testers toward communities where their demographic background was best reflected.

"Agents of this company consistently and repeatedly showed potential white homebuyers homes in white communities and showed potential African American homes in majority African American communities," the investigation findings say.

Lane, who has owned the company for 25 years, said he was astonished by the claims but could not respond to a large extent because he had not seen the report.

"It's hard to believe," he said. "It was absolutely a shock."

Lane also said he was skeptical that steering around certain neighborhoods was possible given the demographics of community.

"How do you steer somebody in a county that's 70 percent black?" he asked.

According to U.S. Census 2003 estimates the number of blacks in the population is between 56 and 60 percent.

The 30 agents employed by Lane all take a three hour course in fair housing training, Lane said.

While Lane's business was singled out, housing discrimination is pervasive in Clayton County, said Shanna Smith, the executive director of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

"It is one of the most egregious (cases)," she said.

But Smith said the alliance plans to file complaints against several groups in the area. She said she could not disclose which agencies would be on the list at this time.

In addition to the social problems conveyed by housing discrimination, it can also cause educational and economic deficiencies, Smith said.

Because homeownership is so crucial to asset development and accumulation of wealth, the neighborhoods to which buyers are introduced has a direct effect on their future social and economic stature, the report says.

"Coupled with NFHA's testing, which reveals a consistent pattern of illegal real estate discrimination and steering, it is clear that current real estate practices converge to lock out black, Hispanic, and other minority families from wealth accumulation through homeownership" the agency says in its recent report.

For schools, segregated neighborhoods tend to create segregated schools, Smith said.

At times, once the school begins to see less diversity, the onset of segregation is further reinforced.

When real estate agents make racially derogatory comments about the schools in a given area, it restricts the demographic growth of an area, Smith said.

A tighter demographic range results in a limited educational experience for students, the alliance's report says.

"Clayton County had the highest change in exposure rates for both black and Latino students," according to a study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project cited in the alliance's report.

This represents a decline in the level of white students in the school system's population by 45 to 58 percent.

"As schools become increasingly segregated, students from racial and ethnic minority groups lose enormous educational and social opportunities," the report says.

Dexter Matthews, the president for the Clayton County Branch of the NAACP, said he wasn't too shocked by the report.

"It's not surprising. It's just a shame," he said. "That's why we still have these civil rights organizations."