Agents walk a fine line courting gays

By Emmet Pierce
STAFF WRITER

January 12, 2003

Before she agreed to help promote Azalea Park as a community that welcomes gays and lesbians, real-estate agent Annė Christensen insisted that the campaign not be exclusionary.

"I wasn't going to be a part of any advertising, any conversation that promoted gay-only purchases," said Christensen, who is a lesbian. "I don't feel that's appropriate.

"What I could support, morally, in conscience, and ethically, was a community with citizens who wanted my help in marketing from the point of view of being welcoming to someone who happened to be gay."

Christensen has been one of the most active agents in the neighborhood. The welcoming campaign, which began in 1993, has brought an estimated 100 gay and lesbian households to the area. They are credited with sparking a home-improvement revival that has boosted property values.

Improvements aside, some legal experts say marketing homes to any group poses a challenge. That's because state and federal laws forbid "steering" real-estate clients to communities based on race, religion or sexual orientation, said June Barlow, vice president and general counsel to the California Association of Realtors.

"You have to be very careful, even in a positive promotion, that this is not sending a negative, exclusionary message," Barlow said.

The practice of steering nonwhites away from certain neighborhoods was widespread in the United States through the first half of the 20th century. Lenders often refused to underwrite loans to minorities applying for mortgages in certain neighborhoods, a practice known as "red-lining." In 1948, the Supreme Court ended such restrictions. Months before the high court's ruling, a local judge ended the practice in San Diego neighborhoods.

Today real-estate agents "have a national code of ethics that we subscribe to that says you cannot discriminate for any reason, based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin," said San Diego attorney Mike Spilger, attorney chair of the Attorney/Realtor Committee of the San Diego Bar Association and the San Diego Association of Realtors.

Jon Davidson, senior counsel for the Lambda Legal, a national civil rights organization that focuses on gays and lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered, sees nothing wrong with Azalea Park's outreach.

"As long as they are not sending a message that some people are not welcome, I don't think state or local law prohibits those measures," Davidson said. "What would be a problem is if they refused to show to gay people in another area. I don't think there is any problem with an agent saying, 'this is a neighborhood that is particularly embracing of gays.' "

San Diego real estate agent Ron Hart owns the GayRealEstateAgents.com Internet referral service. What gay and lesbian home buyers want most is to find a place where they will be accepted, he said. "It is our job, to find them a home in a safe neighborhood."

Although gays and lesbians once made up the majority of Azalea Park's home buyers, that has changed during the last year and a half, said Christensen. "That is what has been fascinating to me," she said. "Time has brought a great mixture."

Longtime activist Linda Pennington isn't surprised that nongay home buyers have found Azalea Park. The improvements that were accomplished by gays and lesbians have made it "more attractive to everyone," she said.

Emmet Pierce: (619) 293-1372; emmet.pierce@uniontrib.com

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.