When Assata Thomas was 26 and shopping for a house, she just happened to end up with a realtor who, like her, was Black.
But she soon recognized that her broker could relate to her experience, her needs, and her concerns as a Black homebuyer, and they developed a trusting relationship that culminated in her first home purchase, a single-family house in Willingboro. So when Thomas, now 52, was in the market for a bigger place, and then for her current house in Pennsauken, she deliberately sought out a Black broker.
“I felt that, with the history of home ownership for Black people specifically, as it concerns red lining and other disparities, it was important for me to have a realtor who knew the historical situation for African Americans and buying homes, and someone who was able from that position to authentically engage on my behalf,” said Thomas, director of the Institution for Community Justice in Philadelphia, a non-profit that works with people who were formerly incarcerated.
But the brokers who helped Thomas purchase her homes are among a disproportionately small minority in their profession, with just 7% of brokers identifying as Black or African-American, according to a 2017 study by the National Association of Realtors. That’s compared to the 13.4% of Americans overall who identified the same way.
So, to encourage more African Americans to join the profession, the online listing service and real estate technology platform HomeLight is collaborating on a scholarship program with the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, or NAREB, an industry group that fosters the careers of Black “realtists,” as the group refers to its members, while seeking to narrow the nation’s wide racial homeownership gap, which is wider than the national average in New Jersey.
In the coming weeks, the groups will announce 10 recipients from among 500 applicants from New Jersey and elsewhere to the Black Real Estate Agent Program. Winners will receive up to $5,000 in benefits that include fees for pre-licensing classes and licensing exams; marketing assistance; a one-year subscription to customer relation management software; continuing education classes on subjects ranging from negotiating contracts to building a presence and advertising on social media; an experienced industry mentor; and a year of free attendance at NAREB conferences.
“Real estate is just one of many industries where diversity is an issue,” said Clara Lyons-DeVaughn, a realtor in Pennsauken, who chairs NAREB’s Southern New Jersey Chapter.
“It’s always important to see people in fields or career choices that look like you,” said Lyons-DeVaughn, who was Thomas’ agent for her last home purchase in 2019.
The issue of diversity is two-fold in real estate, involving underrepresentation among the professionals who work in the industry and among their clientele. A September report by New Jersey Future, a land use policy research group, said just 41% of Black households in the Garden State owned the home they lived in, according to 2018 data. That’s well below the 64% homeownership rate for New Jerseyans overall, according to the report, which put the white homeownership rate at 76.9%, or nearly twice that of Black households.
Researchers have attributed the homeownership gap to the nation’s history of institutional racism that includes discriminatory lending practices that date back to slavery, but include more recent barriers like lending practices by banks, government-imposed redlining of whole neighborhoods, the exclusion of African-American veterans from home-buying provisions of the G.I. Bill, and others.
New Jersey’s Black-white homeownership gap of 35.9% (the difference between the 41% Black homeownership rate and the 76.9% rate for whites) was several points wider than the national average of 30.7%, according to NJ Future. Lyons-DeVaughn attributed the New Jersey gap, at least in part, to the nature and location of the state’s housing supply.
“New Jersey is a suburb,” said Lyons-DeVaughn, referring to the combination of single family homes and high property taxes characteristic of suburbs. Those high housing costs, combined with income inequality, puts much of New Jersey’s housing stock out of reach for many Black residents, Lyons-DeVaughn said.
An effect of the homeownership gap is to perpetuate other racial inequities, because owning a home is the principal means of accumulating wealth, which opens up educational, business and other opportunities for a family’s current and future generations, she said.
Strategies for narrowing the homeownership gap advanced by groups like the Urban Institute range from changes in local land use policies to encourage more affordable housing, to adopting banking regulations that encourage mortgage approvals — short of predatory lending; to providing post-purchase counseling to ensure that homes stay in the hands of their buyers.
But Black real estate brokers say they also have a role to play, including helping their clients feel welcome buying a home, and even pointing out the option to buy for qualified clients who may have been looking for a rental because they grew up on a block where no one owned their home and the thought of ownership seemed out of reach.
“It happens all the time,” said Daba Briggs, 40, a broker with Keller Williams in Jersey City whose territory includes Hudson, Essex, Union and Passaic counties.
Briggs said she has the ability to relate to her clients’ experience and share their sensitivity to racial slights.
“It just happened to me last week, where my clients were a young Black couple, and nobody ever asked me for this before, but the agent was like, ‘Okay, so, I just want to see their picture ID so we know who we’re talking about,’” Briggs said.
Recognizing what has become known as “micro-aggressions,” which can also directed at her as a Black broker, helps Briggs build the kind of trust that can make the difference between a client who becomes a new homeowner and one who remains a renter with monthly payments that never come back to them as equity.