Is it the real estate community’s place to lead conversations about racism and inequality? The Kentucky REALTORS® organization recently pondered that question and decided that after association leaders received letters from members who expressed deep pain over the death of George Floyd, it had a responsibility to step forward.
Kentucky REALTORS® held a virtual town hall June 4 called “A Conversation on Race,” which centered around the experiences of Black members, the meaning of the racial justice movement Black Lives Matter, and questions from brokers interested in becoming more intentionally anti-racist.
“We asked ourselves if we were getting out of our lane,” says Kentucky REALTORS® President Lester Sanders, who is Black. “But if part of our REALTOR® family is hurting and we don’t say anything, then I don’t know that we’re the right leaders. We’re leaders in our communities, so how can we sit silent?”
Racial inequality and justice must be discussed within brokerages as well, says Sandra Butler, chair of NAR’s Fair Housing Policy Committee. But the conversation has to go beyond reinforcing fair housing, which is real estate’s traditional avenue toward addressing discrimination, she adds. “What draws people to a neighborhood is more than housing—it’s schools, walkability, access to food, and health care. We can talk about housing, but if we’re not at the table talking about those other issues, we’re not part of the solution. The housing component is just one piece of the pie.”
How Brokers Can Start a Dialogue
Julia Israel, AHWD, who teaches courses on fair housing, diversity, and barriers to homeownership for the Minnesota REALTORS®, says that it’s inappropriate for broker-owners to remain silent. “This is an opportunity for leaders to show their leadership. These are the moments where brokers can shine,” she says.
Broaching the topic of racial inequality may look different for every office, says Israel, a productivity coach with Keller Williams Integrity Realty in Minneapolis and Keller Williams Central 75 in Dallas. Education is a great avenue, she says, and if a broker needs help developing curriculum, he or she should bring in a professional to help cover racism in real estate and social injustices that lead to inequitable wealth distribution.
Keller Williams, for example, has created a task force to address systemic racism and develop recommendations for actions to eliminate racial disparity within its company. “The truth is that racial injustice and inequality persists, and in order to help change that, it’s critical to not only say something about it but to do something about it,” Gary Keller said in a statement June 1. “I believe that the real estate community has a unique opportunity to promote healing and reform.”
John Graff, broker-owner of Ashby & Graff Real Estate in Los Angeles, wrote and published a blog post on his website acknowledging the grief felt across the nation over the murder of George Floyd as well as systematic oppressions affecting Black Americans. “We all have the power to speak up in the face of wrong and injustice, and we are challenging businesses across America to stand in solidarity with minorities in our country who are fighting for survival,” Graff wrote.
Graff says his goal was “not to pile on to the mass of corporate messaging coming out of the event but to make some sense of this.” He does not believe it’s possible for society to go back to the way things were before the current protests. “This is something that’s going to be a lifetime of changes and correcting of behaviors. For so long, we thought being not racist was good enough. Now you have to be actively anti-racist,” says Graff. One way he’s accomplished that is through a blind recruitment process, which is online and fully automated. This has resulted in the hiring of a diverse group of agents who are reflective of the communities they serve.
“One thing that’s bothered me for a while is there are brokerages in L.A. that are entirely or close to entirely White, and in my opinion, you can’t achieve that unless you actively intended to,” he says.
After protests erupted around the country, the first thing Laurel Starks did was look at herself and what kind of diversity she has in her two businesses—her real estate company, Starks Realty Group, and her training firm, The Ilumni Institute, which are both outside of San Bernadino, Calif. “I checked myself and what type of culture I strive to have. As leaders, that’s the first step,” she says.
Brokers must be the example of change for their agents because “if the top’s not doing it, the bottom’s not going to either,” adds Raelenna Ferguson, a broker with Realty Executives Edge in Cape Girardeau, Mo., who leads online discussions in her community about racial justice. But brokers’ words must match their actions, starting with promoting diversity in their offices and the industry, Butler says.
It’s tough to come out as a leader with a strong anti-racism policy when you have little or no diversity in your office, Starks says. “There can be contradiction there. How you address that should be true to who you are. And if you have no diversity in your organization, then figure out why.”
Making an internal company announcement or amending policies is also an important way for brokers to say they will stand against racist actions, such as steering, derogatory language, or inappropriate social media posts. But that also means enforcing those policies by letting people go when they violate them. “They’re a liability,” says Israel, who’s also the immediate past president of the Twin Cities National Association of Real Estate Brokers.
Real estate companies can turn talk into action by developing partnerships with city councils, chambers of commerce, police departments, or health care facilities to help mobilize ideas for change. “Just like with RPAC, if we aren’t at the table to talk about local policy, then there will be laws passed that hurt people,” Butler says.
Ferguson began hosting weekly forums on social media through her charity, One City, which creates and supports community development opportunities to bring people across racial and socioeconomic lines together. The forums give people, including some of her real estate clients, the opportunity to voice both pain and hope regarding race relations. “There are two sides of our town: We have ‘them’ and ‘us,’” says Ferguson, who is White. “But now a lot of White people are reaching out and wanting to know how to change.”
Your Social Media Approach
It’s the broker’s choice whether to make a public statement about racism, but Isreal warns that not saying anything is a risk because people will create their own narrative about your silence. “Speak up, do not tolerate racism, but continue on with business in the new normal,” says Israel.
Graff says to avoid coming off as tone deaf, a simple thing a broker can do is acknowledge what the country is going through “and recognize that this isn’t the time for the usually upbeat language and flowery social media posts.” Another approach brokers can take on their social media channels is posting verifiable facts about discrimination in housing. “You can keep doing business, but it’s not time for the usual celebratory posts because people are having serious discussions—and I encourage people to embrace the discomfort,” he says.
Ferguson says that real estate professionals must accept the risk of turning off some clients by becoming outspoken about racial equality. “The risk is worth it,” she adds. “If you haven’t approached this conversation with your agents or community, it’s probably because you’re uncomfortable with your own views and what you may not know [about the issue].”
She advises pros to research systemic racism and connect with local Black business owners who can become partners. Advocating for and promoting Black-owned businesses is a major way to promote anti-racism and affect change in your community, Ferguson says.
Understanding History and Making Change
Nate Johnson, the National Association of REALTORS®’ public and federal issues liaison, says that when he was growing up, his parents didn’t own their own home. And as his father, who is Black, was coming of age, it was still legal to deny him housing and other opportunities. “I do realize that the wheels of justice turn slowly,” he said during NAR’s Broker Power Hour webinar on June 12. “The challenges we face today are born through policies, and we have to take ownership of this.”
Johnson pointed out that REALTORS® had a role in creating, supporting, or turning a blind eye to historical redlining, steering, and blockbusting that led to a lack of housing choices across the country for African Americans, which hindered their upward mobility. “This plays a role in the peaceful protests and the tragic expressions of destruction that we have been seeing in our communities all over the country,” said Johnson, who serves on the Missouri-Illinois Bi-State Development Board of Commissioners.
Israel points out that restrictive deeds and racial deed covenants, which were outlawed by the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, would only allow homes to be sold to White people. According to Mapping Prejudice Project at the University of Minnesota, those deed restrictions—coupled with the federal government practice of redlining, which prevented Black people from attaining a mortgage simply based on where they lived—led to segregation and socioeconomic disparities that are still seen today. Minnesota enforced those restrictions more rigorously than most other states, Israel says.
Still, racist business practices persist. An investigation by Newsday published in November found disparate treatment and evidence of fair housing violations when undercover testers posing as home buyers visited real estate agents throughout Long Island, N.Y. A total of 93 agents were tested over three years, and the probe found unequal treatment occurred 49% of the time with Black testers, 39% with Hispanic testers, and 19% with Asian testers.
In response, NAR’s leadership team voted in January to create the ACT initiative, which stands for accountability, culture change, and training. As part of this, minimum core fair housing training requirements are being developed for all states, and NAR is working with state associations to create a state licensing law model to ensure real estate agents who violate fair housing laws are held accountable.
“We believe our neighbors where they live and work should feel safe and free from discrimination,” NAR President Vince Malta said during the Broker Power Hour webinar. “NAR’s committed to leading the way on policies that address racial injustice and that build safe and inclusive communities.”
The ACT program is part of a broader approach NAR has been taking over the past several years to address racism and inclusion. More than a year ago, the association began expanding its staff, focusing on diversity and fair housing, as well as inclusion work with local and state association staff leaders through the Association Leadership Development program. On Friday, June 19, and Friday, June 26, at 11 a.m. CT, the Association Executives Institute will host the next in its Year-Round Virtual Sessions series on “The Role Leadership Plays in Addressing Racial Injustice.”
Too often, Sanders says, society starts a conversation about racism but doesn’t finish it. But this is “an ongoing conversation that should never stop,” he says. “At some point, you get to a place where there’s hope for real change in the core of America. That’s who we are; that’s who we’re supposed to be.”