Throughout the country, real estate agents are taking courses in implicit bias and the origins and effects of racism. In New York State, employers AND the state both mandate these courses, so many agents and managerial staff are taking them twice. In a country which remains rife with prejudice, do these courses actually impact people’s behavior? The jury still seems to be out.
The existence of implicit bias is not in doubt. Nor is it in doubt that it can present terrible outcomes in housing; the rather recent Newsday investigation regarding broker behavior on Long Island demonstrate that with horrifying clarity. The major problem remains that bias is as often institutional as it is personal. And when the personal and the institutional combine, the results can become alarming. Real estate practitioners in New York City see this over and over again, especially regarding co-ops and co-op board deliberations.
The history of prejudice in New York City co-operatives stretches back to the beginning of the co-op form of building ownership. While apartment buildings, unlike communities like Levittown on Long Island, never had explicit restrictive covenants in their proprietary leases, certain underlying principles were understood throughout most elegant Park and Fifth Avenue apartments. No Jews. No gay couples. No unmarried couples. No single women. And certainly no people of color.
After New York’s brush with bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, some of these rules began to loosen up. On Park Avenue, those Jews who had been successful in buying co-ops (mostly the so-called “Our Crowd” Jews of German heritage) were the only ones permitted by their boards to sell their apartments to other, similar Jews. As long as only the Jewish residents sold to other Jews, the Jewish population remained stable. After a single woman with outstanding qualifications was turned down by a Park Avenue board, she sued for discrimination and won. That pretty much put an end to discrimination towards women buying alone. As gay couples gradually openly entered the social stream of New York society, they too became more welcome in co-ops. But all these barriers came down slowly, and sometimes the worst gatekeepers were the brokers themselves. These brokers were not so much prejudiced as fearful. They feared board rejections of these buyers by co-op boards of directors, who believed themselves to be, literally, beyond the reach of the law.
The barrier which remained most intractable was that for people of color, especially Black people. Even today, many agents feel reluctant to take clients of color to many co-ops, fearing to expose these buyers to yet another experience of racial prejudice. And so, all too often, fear and the reluctance to fight perpetuate the ugly status quo.
The maintenance of the status quo usually doesn’t rise immediately to the surface of being apparent. It can be subtle. Is there a little more suspicion of an unmarried Black couple? Are their financials scrutinized a bit more carefully? Are their active digital footprints examined a bit more closely? And what kind of bias and discrimination training are the thousands of co-op board members across the city receiving? Many do not even understand that they are subject to fair housing laws.
Time will tell whether unconscious bias training really is able to penetrate the unconscious. And time is also needed to swell the ranks of Black and Latino/Latina agents plying their trade in New York, not to mention the buyers of color who choose to run the gauntlet of buying into these venerable institutions. But most of all, we need pushback. Agents must not only be on call to facilitate inclusion but also to call out discrimination whenever they can.
In the words of John Stuart Mill, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”