East Cleveland in the 1960s experienced an influx of black residents looking to avail themselves of the many assets the city had to offer. The racial transition of the city occurred rapidly as unscrupulous real estate agents employed practices such as steering, red-lining and block-busting to capitalize on racial fears. East Cleveland, already buffeted by a decline in manufacturing, experienced a precipitous drop in the value of its homes as panicked white residents were induced to sell well below market value. Properties were then sold to less affluent black buyers at inflated rates or divided up into multifamily units, often owned by absentee landlords. These factors combined to undermine the quality of housing stock and intensify the exodus of whites.
Determined to prevent what had occurred in East Cleveland from happening in their community, citizens in Cleveland Heights mobilized to face the challenges of integration. As early as 1964, a grassroots organization called Heights Citizens for Human Rights was formed to promote racial justice and the peaceful integration of the community. Two separate initiatives then were launched in the early 1970s, both of which sought to promote non-discrimination in housing. The first of these was a series of meetings by prominent religious leaders held at the Carmelite Monastery. The “Carmelite Group,” as the participants came to be known, provided a forum for addressing problems related to race relations and for developing a means to promote interracial harmony in Cleveland Heights. It was from this group that the vital organization known as the Heights Community Congress would be formed.
The second undertaking was started in response to an ongoing initiative within the Cleveland Catholic Diocese known as “Action for a Change,” sponsored by the Commission on Catholic Community Action. Action for a Change amounted to an intensive seminar on contemporary social justice issues and was designed to nurture in its participants a passion and commitment to advance the cause of social justice. Individuals were charged with identifying an area of social injustice in their community and taking concrete steps to address the problem. Accordingly, a group of five women parishioners—working mothers and homemakers—took it upon themselves to address the problem of housing discrimination in the Heights. Under the auspices of the St. Ann Parish in Cleveland Heights, these women formed the St. Ann Social Action Housing Committee—better known simply as the St. Ann Committee—in 1971.
Led by Suzanne Nigro, these women were drawn to this issue not simply because they were aware of the hostility that some black Americans were forced to endure when they tried to establish residency in Cleveland Heights, but because several of them had experienced first-hand the practice of real estate steering. As Nigro would later recall, upon arriving here in the early 1960s she and her husband were subtly discouraged by their real estate agent from considering purchasing a home in the Heights. Instead, they were directed toward properties in other communities. However, because the methods of steering and other manifestations of discrimination in the real estate industry were not overt or readily apparent, the central challenge of the St. Ann’s Committee would be to prove that, in fact, discriminatory practices did exist.
After looking at how other communities were responding to allegations of housing discrimination and monitoring compliance with the Fair Housing Act, the Committee learned that some cities were experimenting with a new practice that involved conducting “undercover” audits of real estate practices to determine whether there was discrimination. As it turned out, one such audit was underway in nearby Akron, Ohio. In this scenario, prospective renters (one black couple and one white couple) known informally as “checkers,” made separate inquiries about renting the same piece of property. The backgrounds of the checkers were virtually identical in every respect except race, so the logical inference one could make was that any difference in the treatment they received must be the result of racial discrimination. Inspired by this model, the St. Ann’s Committee developed a plan to conduct a similar audit of real estate practices in Cleveland Heights. In the spring and summer of 1972, what came to be known as the St. Ann Audit was undertaken. Like the Akron audit, it called for numerous pairs of black and white checkers with similar backgrounds and interests to make inquiries about property listings with the approximately ten real estate companies active at that point in the city. When the audits were complete, the collected data were compiled in a report set to be released in early September 1972. The controversial findings of the St. Ann Audit Report sent shock waves through Cleveland Heights and the reverberations from the report are still in evidence to this day.
Responses to the Audit
The findings of the audit, released in the late summer of 1972, proved deeply troubling to a community that prided itself on its openness and diversity, forcing business and civic leaders, as well as private citizens, to reexamine their own racial attitudes and to address more squarely the insidious nature of housing discrimination. It was unsettling and difficult work, but the civic response that transpired over the ensuing months and years stands as model of grassroots self-evaluation and reform of which our community can be rightfully proud.
When all the data from the St. Ann Audit were gathered, they revealed clear racial bias and discriminatory practices in the real estate business in Cleveland Heights. Indeed, instances of discrimination were documented at each of the ten companies covered by the audit. Additionally, the audit found that “steering” (i.e., using race to direct clients toward or away from particular communities) was commonly practiced by seven of the ten companies, confirming Nigro’s own experiences when she was discouraged from looking at properties in the Heights in the 1960s. The audit further revealed that white and black clients received very different treatment from realtors. For instance, a white client was much more likely to get a call back from a realtor than a black client; whites were usually shown a wider range of homes; and whites were taken on as clients much more quickly than were their black counterparts. In sum, not only did it appear the letter of the law set forth in the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 was being violated in the Heights, but the spirit of the law was being thwarted as well.