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Break for black realtors? - access to Multiple Listing Service

A lawsuit filed by a predominantly black real estate brokers group in Atlanta may soon change the face of the residential real estate market. Last summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta barred the DeKalb County (Ga.) Board of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) from denying nonmembers access to its Multiple Listing Service (MLS), a computerized database of homes for sale.

It the U.S. Supreme Court rejects a January appeal of the case, observers say the decision will provide new opportunities for minority brokers and others who have been frozen out of the market.

"Opening up [access to the MLS] will allow for free trade," says National Association of Real Estate Brokers President Frank A. Clay Jr. Free trade will level the playing field for minorities as brokers vie for business in a stagnant market.

Under the ruling, anyone with a broker's license will have access to the MLS. The decision covers Georgia, Alabama and Florida, but copycat suits, such as the one pending in Boise, Idaho, are expected to spring up across the nation. Once the ruling becomes law, consumer advocates project that the $25 billion in commissions that home sellers pay real estate brokers each year could be substantially reduced.

The Atlanta suit was filed by three members of the Empire Real Estate Board. E. Pearl Presley, Wendell White and Fletcher L. Thompson claimed that the NAR's exclusionary rules for accessing the MLS almost drove the predominantly black organization out of business. Empire was formed in 1939, when blacks weren't allowed to join the NAR.

Even after civil rights advances enabled blacks to join the NAR (or Realtors, as the members like to call themselves) in the 1960s, most remained with Empire. They had little taste for joining the NAR, which had a history of racial discrimination and insensitivity. 'The Realtors still do not address black issues, like redlining," says Presley, who is president of Pal Realty Co. Inc.

The Realtors have withstood repeated antitrust challenges in the past decade, but the Empire case was the first to inject racial discrimination as an issue. There is an outside chance that the Supreme Court may hear the Realtor's appeal during its next term. However, the Court is expected to send the case back to the Appeals Court in Atlanta, where many believe the NAR will lose again. A jury would have the option of awarding a monetary settlement.

Whether there are monetary damages or not, an ultimate victory in the case will be both bitter and sweet for the plaintiffs. Years of fighting the real estate establishment have forced Presley and Thompson from the brokerage business.

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