August 11, 2010— -- George and Peytyn Willborn said it was a dream not deferred but denied. The African-American couple had found their dream house -- an 8,000-square-foot property in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood -- that met their requirements: big closets, basketball court, five bedrooms and a home theater.
Despite agreeing on a $1.7 million purchase price, owners Daniel and Adrienne Sabbia never signed a purchase contract with the Willborns, according to a complaint that is now part of a federal housing discrimination action. The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Tuesday that it has charged the Sabbias, their real estate agent and a real estate broker with refusing to sell their home to a black couple, a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The complaint alleged that the Sabbias and Prudential real estate agent Jeffrey Lowe stalled negotiations and took the property off the market in January after receiving a $1.7 million offer from radio personality and comedian George Willborn and his wife, businesswoman Peytyn Willborn.
According to published reports, the house was back on the market by March and listed again for an asking price of $1.799 million.
According to the complaint, the Willborns' offer was the highest the sellers had received in the two years the property had been on the market. However, when faced with signing the sales contract, the Sabbias refused.
Dylcia Cornelious, the Willborns' agent, said while the Willborns have found another home and the closing is pending, the pain remains.
"They are absolutely still reeling from this," she said. "It's hurtful, unacceptable in this day and age. You can't choose who you can sell your home to."
Cornelious said the Willborns loved the house. "It was perfect. The children had picked out their rooms."
The complaint stated that real estate agent Lowe told Cornelious on Jan. 11 that the Sabbias had changed their minds and were taking the home off the market, despite it having been listed for sale for almost two years. Lowe gave various reasons as to why he said the Sabbias had decided not to sell, which included Adrienne Sabbia having changed her mind when the couple couldn't find a suitable new home to move to, and wanting to keep the children in their current schools.
"By refusing to sign the sales contract," HUD said in its complaint, the Sabbias "committed unlawful discrimination" by refusing to sell the home to the Willborns "after the making of a bona fide offer because of their race, African-American."
According to the complaint, during the negotiations, Lowe told Cornelious that his sellers had researched the Willborns. The complaint noted that Internet searches of George Willborn produced numerous images of him.
The Willborns filed a complaint with HUD Jan. 28, and after receiving the complaint, HUD said the Sabbias on Feb. 1 offered to sell their home and all its furniture to the Willborns for $1.799 million. The Willborns declined.
"I was appalled," Willborn told the Chicago Tribune. "The feeling that my entire family has, it's hard to describe. You're talking about 2010. I don't know if people realize it, but we elected an African-American president, so it's not asking too much to be able to live where we want to live."
Willborn said the couple found it difficult to explain to their children what had happened. So they bought a copy of the television miniseries "Roots" and watched it as a family. They then talked to their son and daughter about prejudice.
"I've had to talk to my kids about sex and drugs and all the things they need to arm them," he said. "We talk about race, of course, like every family, but I never had to do what I had to do in this case," he told the Chicago Tribune.According to the complaint, Lowe said in a HUD interview while under oath that while he was representing the Sabbias, Daniel Sabbia told him, "he would prefer not to sell the home to an African-American, though he qualified the testimony, saying 'but if it was for the right price he did not care who bought the house.'"
The Sabbias, Lowe and Prudential will decide whether they want the case heard by an administrative law judge or a federal district judge in Chicago.
If discrimination is found, the Sabbias, their agent and his firm could be forced to pay civil penalties to HUD and financial damages to the Willborns and Cornelious.
John Trasvina, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a prepared statement, "Racial fairness is important at all income levels. Civil rights enforcement must be the effective shield against housing discrimination that in this case wealth was not."
In the complaint, George Willborn said the experience changed who he is and his core belief system. He now finds himself less trustworthy of others and their actions. It has been difficult for the entire family. He said, "I was denied the American dream I worked so hard to attain."
The Sabbias did not return phone calls seeking comment. Prudential's Dennis Dooley said it was "inappropriate" to comment on the pending case.