Black real estate professionals say systemic racism remains a problem in industry
Donnell Spivey remembers the time that a home a Black family was selling was appraised for $30,000 less than it was by another appraiser two weeks later. No changes had been made to the home during that time. Spivey thinks the appraiser who set the lower value showed bias.
It still stings India Whitlock when she recalls the times — and there have been many — when she has been told that non-Black clients would prefer to work with real estate agents “from their own communities.”
And home loan officer Justin Walker Sr., remembers warning a Black client against writing an impassioned letter to the seller of a Towson home that would have been perfect for her disabled family member. The client offered $7,000 over the offer and still didn’t get the home. Walker suspects her race was the deciding factor.
Property- and home-ownership are central to building generational wealth, or the passing of an asset from one generation to another. And as discussions about race have moved recently to the forefront of the national discussion, so have concerns about how Black people navigate the real estate ecosystem.
Black professionals in the Baltimore area say they battle low expectations, stereotypes and discriminatory practices in a profession where they are underrepresented and make tens of thousands of dollars less a year than their white counterparts. When it comes to their Black clients, they say they have to work twice as hard to ensure that they are able to achieve the goal of homeownership.
“This industry operates from a space of privilege. A lot of us don’t come from legacy families — families that have generational wealth, families that talk about money. In minority communities, we start from the bottom,” said Whitlock, a licensed real estate agent based in Towson.
Kymber Menkiti, co-owner and president of Keller Williams Capital Properties (KWCP), a brokerage with nine offices across the Washington, D.C., area, said education is key.
“I want people in the marketplace to be more aware. I think people don’t think it [discrimination in real estate] is a thing. But it has significant impact on the transaction,” she said. “It’s not a question of, ‘Is this an issue?’ What do we need to do to educate the realtor communities so that they are not playing a part in this and so we can dismantle this. All of this starts with education.”
Although Blacks represent 14% of the U.S. population, Black real estate agents and brokers account for only about 6% of the industry. And according to The Brookings Institute, homes owned by Black people are priced 23% lower than white people.
Code switching, name changes
Many Black industry professionals say they have found themselves having to code switch, change the way they speak or alter themselves in order to present as less Black.
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Whitlock said whites aren’t the only ones who seem to want her to be less of her authentic self.
“I had a Black guy who said I didn’t sound that I knew what I was talking about and I didn’t have the dialect to match my experience,” she recalled. “Coming from a Black man, I felt crappy.”
Walker, branch manager and owner of Paramount Residential Mortgage Group’s Inner Harbor branch, which is licensed in 49 states, finds himself having to tone down his manner to become more acceptable to white people.
“They want you to speak with a very light voice. They don’t want to deal with people who are ethnic,” Walker said.
Walker finds himself having to continuously advocate on behalf of his Black client in the face of discriminatory practices.
“I want to make sure my clients of color have a fair chance because their loans are scrutinized,” he said. “When they go to an open house and the listing agent is there and they meet my client, I am already concerned because it’s like they have a target on them.”
Many of the Black industry professionals interviewed say that it has become commonplace for Black clients to remove “ethnic sounding” middle names from paperwork or attempt to remove their names altogether in an attempt to prevent racism from thwarting their pursuit of homeownership.
Walker said that “for years” he and other Black industry professionals have been asking for last names or other identifying factors to be dropped from applications.
“A name doesn’t need to be on the application,” he said. “All it allows is for them to know that it is a person of color.”
Whitlock said she knows one Black home lender who omitted his middle name, Antoine, when advertising his services because he feared it sounded “too Black” and would cost him business.
“You almost have to change a little bit,” she said. “My clients have mentioned it to me, asking, ‘Do you think they didn’t accept it [the offer] because of my name?’”
Although she doesn’t advise Black clients to change their names when applying for homes, Menkiti understands why they feel the need to do so.
Menkiti, who has worked in the industry for the past 15 years, said many white sellers continue to want to know the identities of those buying their homes.
“The sellers are asking for their names. They go to social media. They are searching for them,” she said. “People have strong opinions about who comes into their community. That’s still an issue. I think it’s often, ‘Look at his adorable family that looks like me.’ They feel connected. That’s who they feel comfortable with.”
One practice that Black industry experts warn against is the writing of “love letters” to sellers. They seem harmless enough. But these letters, which some prospective buyers send to homeowners in an effort to make a connection that might tip the scales in their favor when there are multiple offers, tend to have the opposite effect.
Oregon has made the practice of writing love letters illegal because it can be used to discriminate against homebuyers. In Rhode Island, a proposed bill would prohibit a seller’s agent from receiving these letters when accepting home purchase offers. And the National Association of Realtors warns against them.
Walker tells prospective Black home buyers not to write love letters because “it looks desperate” and because such letters can be used to ascertain their identities.
In one case, Walker warned a prospective Black buyer about writing a letter to a white seller. The buyer had a parent with a disability and the home she wanted to buy was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“She was adamant [about writing the letter.] She thought they would be sympathetic,” Walker recalled, saying the prospective buyer didn’t get the home. “She was way overqualified as well. Her offer was for more money than the asking price. But the seller specifically questioned me about her financing. The lady literally said, ‘Are they struggling?’”
Menkiti said her company ditched the practice a decade ago.
“You’re trying to position your clients to success,” she explained. “But that can put people at a disadvantage.”
Does race affect appraisals?
One of the biggest areas of concern among Black real estate professionals involves the process for appraisals, which they say can be completely subjective and ripe with opportunities to discriminate against Black people.
“The appraiser has so much autonomy for value. They have so much autonomy that they can play with. They can use that on a negative side when they are working with African American communities,” said Spivey, the immediate past president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. “It’s very broad.”
When Spivey suspected unfair appraisals because of race, he hasn’t reported it.
“Probably I should have. But we are so busy buying and selling, sometimes it goes unreported. They need to address this above so that it doesn’t put the burden on the real estate professionals.”
Menkiti said that she attempts to thwart unfair appraisals before they begin.
“It is really important for me to screen my appraisers,” she said.
For example, Menkiti requests that appraisers are local to the area being assessed so that they don’t apply location bias to certain neighborhoods.
“As a realtor, particularly when I was working for an underrepresented buyer, I knew I had to work twice as hard for my client. Once that appraisal is in, it’s hard to have that changed,” said Menkiti, who said she has only had one successful appeal of a bad appraisal in her 15 years in the industry. “They are going to defend their value.”
Walker said he reported an appraiser to an appraisal management company in 2021.
“He kept undervaluing properties,” Walker recalled. “Coincidentally it was when they were Black people [selling]. When I had an example of five different properties, I drafted an appraisal rebuttal complaining about the consistency of undervalued appraisals — and I won.”
One of the cases involved the appraiser undervaluing a Black-owned property by more than $50,000. The appraiser was fired soon after, according to Walker.
Craig Steinley, the president of the Appraisal Institute, which touts itself as the nation’s largest professional organization of real estate appraisers, said that differential treatment because of race “goes against everything appraisers stand for.”
He added: “Appraisal is one piece of a larger ecosystem to look at when it comes to housing issues. Ensuring unconscious bias doesn’t play a role in appraisals and seeking broader solutions to diversity, equity and inclusion in housing is a priority for the Appraisal Institute. Creating a more equitable housing environment in this country will take solutions advanced by real estate brokers/agents, banks, government agencies, appraisers and others.”
It reads: “We know unconscious bias is human and exists in various forms, and no profession is immune from that. We need to educate ourselves about potential bias and how to interrupt it.”
The Maryland Department of Labor does not keep statistics on licensees within the state, but points to several actions it has taken to help curb appraisal bias, according to a department spokeswoman.
One action, the Code of Maryland Regulations, which takes effect June 30, requires continuing education for fair housing, racial discrimination and appraisal bias for license renewal.
The department also supported legislation in the last General Assembly session (SB455/HB669) that created a new pathway for entry into the appraisal industry. It would allow appraiser trainees to substitute the mandatory 1000-1500 hours of supervision for completion of practical coursework, according to the spokeswoman.
”The recently passed legislation would improve access to appraisal licensure, as mandated supervision is a significant barrier to entry into the appraisal field, especially for people of color,” according to the spokeswoman.
Clearing other hurdles
With technological advances and high-profile society trends, new obstacles pop up regularly that make it even more difficult to create an equitable real estate market, according to Black industry professionals.
Spivey said that sellers are now using ring cameras, “nanny cams” and Google voice and Alexa systems to learn the identities of potential buyers who visit during open houses or when a real estate agent is showing the home.
“I first started hearing about it four or five years ago,” Spivey said. “They are using cameras to see who comes in and out of the home.”
And something as simple as a Black real estate agent hosting an open house or showing a home can now raise safety concerns for that agent.
Menkiti said that considering recent stand-your-ground shootings, many of her Black male real estate agents are now pairing up when going door to door to inform neighbors of open houses.
“I’ve seen a lot of the agents reconsider knocking on doors,” she said. “It’s just the reality. We’re seeing it play out.”
Spivey said he knows several Black real estate agents who have stopped putting their pictures on for-sale signs to better conceal their identities.
“Sometimes that is a deterrent for a buyer to buy a home,” he lamented. “There are more white homeowners than there are Black. Sometimes that can hurt us. They are controlling the market.”