Chicago’s Baird & Warner honors a forebearer’s principles while supporting the housing aspirations of the next generation.
Stephen Baird

© Courtesy of Baird & Warner

Baird & Warner CEO and President Steve Baird, a fifth-generation owner of the brokerage, draws on the real estate principles of his father and former company leader John Baird.

Key takeaways:

  • Chicago brokerage Baird & Warner is honoring its former president, John Baird, and advancing homeownership equity with a scholarship for law students working in fair housing.
  • Through a program called Engage, the company brings together agents and brokers to talk about doing business with clients protected under federal, state, and local fair housing laws.
  • Now, the company has announced a three-year partnership with Habitat for Humanity Chicago that includes training for would-be homeowners.

In 1966, Chicago real estate brokerage Baird & Warner issued a public statement: Everyone deserves the right to own a home. Shortly after that, company managers notified clients saying they would not discriminate in the sale of homes.

Today, that sounds like pretty standard fare, especially in June as brokerages and REALTOR® associations mark Homeownership Month, a time to celebrate the benefits of ownership and advocate for policies that foster homeownership opportunities.

But in Chicago in the 1960s, those actions represented a profile in courage. John Baird, then president of the company, took a controversial stand beginning in the early 1960s, testifying before the Chicago City Council, and later the Illinois General Assembly, in favor of antidiscrimination laws. He even resigned from the Chicago REALTORS®, along with two other brokers, to protest the association’s opposition. (Although REALTORS® have supported fair housing since the mid-1970s, the association advocated against such laws throughout the 1960s, reasoning that owners had the right to dispose of their property however and to whomever they chose.)

“He was criticized and threatened at the time,” says son Steve Baird. “We got lots of letters, positive and negative. Our archives are interesting on this. He wrote a response to each one.”

“In the letters I have from Dad, the way he wrote about it was, it was the right thing to do and It makes good business sense. It was a moral imperative and a business imperative,” says Baird, now CEO and president and the company’s fifth-generation owner. “A more equitable housing market is a healthier housing market for the city. Why would you not want to offer your property to the widest market possible?”

Today, Baird & Warner honors and amplifies John Baird’s legacy in numerous ways. Perhaps the most important is to keep his efforts present, says Lucy Baird, Steve Baird’s daughter and the company’s historian and director of corporate impact.

Through a program called Engage, the company’s brokers and agents have an opportunity to talk about fair housing year-round, not just during Fair Housing Month or Homeownership Month. It’s a chance for real dialogue about working with groups protected under federal, state, and local laws. Chicago law prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, parental status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, military status and source of income.

The company has four Engage events slated for 2022.

“We’re not preaching,” says Steve Baird, “We’re saying, ‘Here are the unique things you should understand so you can look at these groups as a source of business.’ We view it as nondenominational and nonpolitical. We’re not out to force people to change their opinions, but we don’t tolerate discrimination in any form. It is a basic core principle of who we are as a company.”

That principle has certainly worked for Baird & Warner, the oldest continually operating brokerage in the country. It’s one of the nation’s largest residential brokerages, ranking 31st in T3 Sixty’s list of the Top 1000, with more than $7.7 billion in sales in 2021.

Last year, the company took another step in the drive for housing equity, endowing a scholarship at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Law. Students who work in the school’s Fair Housing Legal Support Center & Clinic are eligible to apply. Baird & Warner has committed $215,000, which will enable the scholarship to go to one student per year and to two students every few years.

The scholarship idea germinated as the company geared up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 2018.

“We started out asking, ‘How can we recommit to fair housing?’ That was four years ago, and it led to this,” says Lucy Baird. “We had invited [the UIC clinic] to speak as part of Engage. It’s Chicago’s only public law school with a diverse student body. Leaders in this space are so important, and investing in future leaders in fair housing felt like an important investment.”

The scholarship is funded through Baird & Warner’s philanthropic arm, Good Will Works, and the Stephen W. and Susan M. Baird Foundation. Good Will Works’ mission is to empower homeownership and strengthen communities. “We give four large grants each year. Last year, we raised and gave away $600,000,” says Steve Baird. “When we make these large contributions, we’re not just writing a check.” The company plans to keep working with the UIC clinic on agent training. Similarly, through a three-year partnership with Habitat for Humanity announced in May, Baird & Warner brokers and agents have an opportunity to serve as instructors in Habitat for Humanity Chicago’s Public Homebuyer University.

Baird & Warner celebrated its 167th anniversary this year. “This community helped us be successful,” says Stephen Baird. “It’s a big city—a great city—but it has its problem. It needs people who will continue to make it a better place.”