Published in The American Genius
Karen Hatcher walked into the 100-year-old house that would become her own, bypassing stacks of books and newspapers left behind by its previous owner.
Beyond the clutter, the first thing she noticed was the hole enveloping the home's outdated kitchen, its original hardwood floors rotting away after a century of use. Through it, Hatcher could see directly into the crawl space below the property.
"It was going to take six dumpsters just to clear the house and it needed so much beyond that; it was really daunting," she says. "But I also really wanted to get into this neighborhood."
So much work would be required—a new HVAC unit, bathrooms replaced, the bottom floor remodeled entirely—that Hatcher would have to secure a construction loan just to get the financing she'd need to turn the house into a home.
But the price was good—$169,000, in 2007—and she knew she could refinance out of her initial loan once some of the renovations were completed. After qualifying for a 6.375% interest rate, Hatcher quickly put in an offer for the dilapidated single-family home in Atlanta's historic Kirkwood neighborhood.
"I was like, ‘I'll take it,'" Hatcher, at the time working in a corporate role for Ikea, recounts today. "I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity because I knew the advantages of buying real estate. And I wanted my first purchase to be for growth, for investment."
Hatcher and her husband, Michael, married later that year. They lived in the house for the next decade. Here, they graduated from newlyweds to parents of three and the owners of an asset far more valuable than either of them imagined on their wedding day.
"When we sold that house, I was able to pay off my grad school loans and put money towards our new home," she says. "I made a huge, six-figure profit. It was ridiculous. You can only do that with real estate, right?
"That's why we have to make sure opportunities like this still exist for people all over the country."
The doors opened by homeownership are clearly not lost on Hatcher, the 2022 President of the Atlanta REALTORS® Association. But she's also keenly aware of how thin that margin is between the haves and have-nots—the small, sometimes imperceptible differences separating those who can purchase property from those who feel perpetually locked out of the market, unable to save for a down payment or afford the home they want.
Karen joined Michael, a commercial property developer, in the real estate industry right around the time she closed on that first home. The purchase, undeniably, had a dramatic influence on her life as a young adult. Motivated by the experience, Hatcher has become increasingly invested in efforts to boost fair and affordable housing opportunities for the countless Americans unsure if homeownership will be attainable in their lifetime.
Last year, Hatcher was appointed to co-chair the Homeownership Working Group for HouseATL, a collection of Atlanta-area leaders focused on creating affordable residences for purchase. The group, alongside a number of public and private partners, was the first local pilot program of the nationwide "3 by 30" initiative launched by the Black Homeownership Collaborative (BHC).
The National Association of Realtors®, as part of its broader fair housing efforts, was a founding member of the BHC in 2020. Together with the Mortgage Bankers Association, the Urban Institute, and others, NAR helped craft the group's initial seven-point plan to create three million net new Black homeowners in America by 2030.
In Atlanta, where Freddie Mac estimates more than 205,000 mortgage-ready Black millennials are still renting, the initiative begins with a goal of producing six thousand new Black homeowners in the city before 2026.
The effort is personal for Karen and her partners on the ground, knowing any success or progress made in Georgia can be replicated nationally through the BHC.
"We've got to scale the entire ecosystem; the companies building real estate; the agents selling it; the closing attorneys, mortgage brokers, and consumers," Karen says. "We need to be educating all of these folks about the steps needed to promote fair housing, to close gaps, and to actually increase access to property ownership."
The child of Jamaican immigrants, Hatcher grew up in upstate New York, where her dad worked three decades as an engineer for Kodak. Partially driven to find a home that offered more diversity than she encountered as a child living outside of Rochester, Hatcher accepted a scholarship to attend Clark Atlanta University.
After graduation, Hatcher and her college roommate rented an apartment in one of Atlanta's affordable housing communities. Today, she says saving for her first down payment would have been impossible if not for that decision. It's that kind of lesson—the lasting experiences and emotions—that Hatcher feels so fortunate to be able to share with her clients, particularly those eyeing homeownership for the first time.
Having moved on from the starter house into a dream home less than a mile away, Michael today operates Sovereign Construction & Development while Karen oversees Sovereign Realty & Management.
Their successes have allowed the Hatchers to reinvest considerable energy into the industry and the community that changed their lives so dramatically a decade and a half ago.
Through a collaboration and subsidization facilitated by the non-profit Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Karen and Michael plan to start pre-listing 50 new affordable housing units in Atlanta later this year.
The couple is looking to acquire more land for additional affordable housing opportunities while pursuing relationships with developers to initiate similar projects. They're also working to educate local policymakers on the importance of zoning and land access reform.
"I feel called into affordable housing," Karen reflects today. "Real estate changed my life. That's why my husband and I are so focused and so passionate about building these units for sale and creating these spaces for people. We know how life-changing that can be."
Bob Goldberg is Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of REALTORS®.