Editor's note: Can real estate race ahead?

Jul.July 19, 2020 01:00 PM

Stuart Elliott

An agent at a real estate brokerage in Brooklyn said he routinely witnesses unequal treatment from landlords when he submits applications from Black renters. To deal with it, he said agents at his firm lighten photos of Black applicants to give those clients a better chance.

Welcome to the state of race relations in 2020.

As we write in one of our cover stories in this issue, the protest movement that swept the globe in the wake of George Floyd’s death has put corporate America under a microscope.

As a result, many in real estate are deciding to address what is now widely acknowledged as structural racism — inequality that has come about either intentionally or as a result of unconscious biases and needs to be fixed.

Black staffers at real estate brokerages are now also making themselves heard to confront what they see as unequal treatment. Incidents at Nooklyn and Core in New York have prompted anger over allegedly racially insensitive actions by executives. Those staffers are also pointing out bigger systemic problems in the brokerage world, like firms failing to call out and continuing to work with discriminatory landlords.

Meanwhile, in our Closing interview, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries — chair of the House Democratic caucus and a rising star in the party — speaks movingly about the racism he has experienced throughout his life and that he is now educating his teenage sons to navigate. 

“I’ve been stopped by the police in high school and in college. I have been stopped by the police as a law student and as a lawyer,” Jeffries told us. “I have been stopped by the police as a state legislator and as a member of Congress.”

He sees a need for “a total reset” on race relations, including change when it comes to real estate issues like gentrification.

More broadly, you’d have to look back to the 1960s — now more than half a century ago — to find a comparable period of sweeping social change.

Think about what took up our attention during recent boom times: condo buildings with pet spas as amenities and news about the latest hipster artisanal pickle store opening a storefront in Williamsburg. It seems trivial now.

Real estate can make a difference with many of the central issues of our time, not only racism. And that all comes as the pandemic sets new records in more than 20 states, including some of the country’s top real estate markets. Among the problems the industry must address:

• How to make its buildings safe to prevent the transmission of coronavirus since we can’t all socialize outside, work from home or order from Amazon forever.

• The greening of our cities and how to prevent buildings from contributing to climate change (through emissions). Skyscrapers with hanging gardens and bike lanes were just the start pre-coronavirus. And developers still need to outfit many of their properties to weather the climate change that’s already happening, clearly evident in places like Miami Beach.

• How to remake and improve the country’s ailing infrastructure. Real estate firms would play a big part in any federal infrastructure plan under a Biden presidency, for example, helping to put some of the country’s 18 million unemployed to work. (Under a Trump presidency, there might be another “infrastructure week.”)

• Whether housing is a basic human right. The leftward march of politics in big U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and landmark rent reform, rent strikes and eviction moratoriums would suggest things could be heading further in that direction.

It’s a lot to tackle. But it is an opportunity. We are living in pretty momentous times. And ignoring problems that already plague our society is no longer an option.

Elsewhere in the issue we have stories on what real estate companies received PPP loans; “re-closings” amid the rise in Covid nationally; how restaurants are dealing with their landlords; and the surprising amount of investment in nursing homes.

Enjoy the issue.

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