Selling Houses While Black

About 6 percent of real estate agents and brokers in the United States are Black. Their white peers make almost three times as much, according to data and surveys.

Tye Williams feels the heat. It’s 95 degrees out, and the North Carolina sun is beating like a drum. He’s in a full suit and tie and thinking about the tasks ahead. When he gets to the home he’s showing, will he arouse suspicion because he has trouble opening the lockbox? Will neighbors call the cops when they see him circling the property and peeping in its crawl spaces? Or will his extremely professional — and very warm — attire protect him? As a Black real estate agent, “I’m always sure I have my license ready,” he said.

Black agents say thoughts like these often run through their heads when they are out showing houses to their clients.

Despite groundbreakers like Philip A. Payton Jr., whose Afro-American Realty transformed Harlem into an international center of Black culture in the early 20th century, a history of racism in the real estate industry has shut Black people out and has discouraged them from becoming agents. Though the National Association of Realtors (N.A.R.) permitted Black people to join and to access its benefits in 1961 when the organization officially ended the exclusion of Black agents, the group still lobbied against the 1968 Fair Housing Act, a law to end housing discrimination.

Today about 6 percent of real estate agents and brokers in the United States are Black, though 14 percent of Americans are Black. White real estate agents make almost three times as much as their Black peers, according to the N.A.R.. To make it in the industry, Black agents say they are taking precautions and making concessions, including changing their names or omitting their photos from promotional materials to hide their racial identities.

The discrimination they face can be life-threatening: In August 2021, police officers in Michigan handcuffed and pointed guns at Eric Brown, a Black real estate agent, and his Black clients as he showed them a home.

Lydia Pope, 53, president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (N.A.R.E.B.), an organization founded in 1947 as an alternative for Black agents and brokers excluded from the N.A.R., recalled how in 2017 she had a listing in a majority-white neighborhood. “Police cars started surrounding the whole area,” said Ms. Pope, who lives in Cleveland.

When she asked the police what was happening, they told her they had a report of a break-in, she said. “I showed them the computer, the information on my phone. I showed them the work order that I had. I showed them my business card, my license, everything, and they ran my plate,” Ms. Pope said.

Luckily, the situation resolved peacefully, but it was still upsetting enough for Pope to refuse to return to the property. “I gave the listing back.”

I’m Not Supposed to Be Here’

In 2018, Chastin J. Miles, 33, a Black real estate agent and investor in Dallas, was excited to hold his first open house of a super-high-end home (about $3 million). It was a 6,000-square-foot colonial-style home with four bedrooms, five bathrooms, three living areas and a pool on an oversize corner lot on one of Dallas’ highest price-per-square-foot streets. His excitement disappeared abruptly, when would-be buyers, an older white couple, walked in and immediately walked out upon seeing him. “She opened the door and literally stopped there in the door frame and said to me, ‘Oh, you’re not who we were expecting,’ and her and her husband turned around and walked away,” he said. “They weren’t expecting me to be in that house on this street in this ZIP code.”

Some Black agents said they have come to expect bigotry, especially from older white people.

Darryl Dibbs, 33, a Black agent in Detroit, said many potential clients grew up under segregation and with laws like interracial marriage bans, “so I’m not convinced that this 60-year-old white man completely trusts me with selling his home when he lived in a time where I couldn’t even buy one.”

After the experience with the older couple in Dallas, Mr. Miles concluded: “I’m not supposed to be here.”

Mr. Miles didn’t host any more open houses at the mansion and considered selling less expensive houses. But then he came up with a new approach: He started “buddying up” with white agents, hiring them to come to his open houses and work as greeters at the door, while he remained a distance away in the kitchen. When a greeter referred potential clients to Miles to get answers to their questions about the home or buying process, they were often surprised that he was the one in charge. And while these potential buyers were always polite, they seemed unwilling to engage with him as they would have with his white colleague. They asked him simple questions that lacked the depth of those that buyers of multi-million-dollar homes usually ask. In these interactions, Mr. Miles was “left asking, ‘Are you sure that that’s it? You don’t want to know anything else?’”

Even before showing up at open houses with white buddies, some Black agents employ other tactics to hide their racial identity. Though it is standard practice for agents to include a headshot on their business cards and marketing materials, some Black agents omit photos to hopefully persuade prospective clients to work with them based on credentials and knowledge.

The longtime tradition of the lawn sign can be threatened by racism. When a white couple commissioned Fee Gentry, 54, a Black real estate consultant in the Austin area, to list their house for sale, they asked her to display a lawn sign that did not include her photo.

Mr. Williams, 36, the well-dressed agent in Raleigh, N.C., decided to take a different tactic at initial racial ambiguity to further avoid prejudgment: Tye Williams is actually Tyrone Williams. He has been going by Tye for many years and thought deeply about the impact of using Tye versus Tyrone when he started in real estate in 2020. “Having ‘Tyrone’ on a sign may put me in a position where it’s like, oh, that’s a Tyrone,” he said. Although he’s proud of the name, he knows that it’s stigmatized. “Unfortunately, there would be someone that will see this name and go the other way.” (Studies have shown that employers discriminate against applicants with names closely associated with Black people.)

Do Brokerages Share the Blame?

According to a survey from the N.A.R. of its members, the median for white real estate agents’ residential sales was $356,000, while the median for those of Black agents was $246,000. The median sales volume for white real estate agents was $1,998,000, while the median sales volume for Black agents was $474,500.

Discrimination means a smaller pool of potential clientele and smaller commissions from properties at lower price points, since homes owned by Black people are undervalued, priced 23 percent lower than homes owned by white people.

But an agent’s background and their clientele are not the only reasons Black agents generally earn less than their white peers, Black agents said.

They said brokerages are also to blame for the earnings gap.

As a new agent nearly 20 years ago, Ms. Gentry was offered 20 percent of the 3 percent commission she was due as a buyer’s agent. And in 2016, at Mr. Dibbs’s first brokerage, a white woman he befriended, who started at the same time as him, shared that she was getting a significantly better commission split than he was. He left for another brokerage.

Black agents also said that listing agents who are not Black often do not respond to their calls and require their Black clients to jump through hoops, like showing proof of funds or IDs, before they can view properties.

In 2020, the N.A.R.apologized for its past complicity in racist housing practices and is implementing its ACT Initiative to hold bad actors in the industry accountable. But many Black agents would like to see more done — and the ACT measures can only go so far if anti-Black racism remains rampant in society.

Pamela Chambers, 53, a Black agent in Tucson who is sure to wear her company badge in unwelcoming neighborhoods, recalled how white agents mocked the lesson in a required fair housing class that she has taken every two years since getting licensed in Arizona in 2017.

She said she lost faith in the course’s efficacy. Agents are “just taking it because they have to to keep their license,” said Ms. Chambers. To avoid classmates’ comments doubting that anti-Black housing discrimination still happens, she now plans to take these classes online.

You’re Missing Out’

Still, Ms. Chambers loves real estate and believes it’s a great career path: You don’t need a college degree, have uncapped earning potential, are poised to get into real estate investing, and get to participate in one of the best days of people’s lives.

She has encouraged other Black people to get into the business and started a mentorship program to increase the diversity of the brokerage where she works, which until recently only had two Black agents, Ms. Chambers and her ex-husband, out of about 500.

Many other agents I spoke to are similarly starting mentoring groups, affinity groups, and even buying real estate courses, “$67 on Groupon!,” for Black friends to encourage them to get into the business.

Mr. Williams makes sure to always post photos of real estate wins to social media, so that Black people considering getting into the business will see more people who look like them. He’s also involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion work with his local N.A.R. chapter, and tries to make changes on the ground. For example, after many experiences of walking into show homes and turning a corner to have the shock and insult of racially-charged posters, flags, and magnets, saying things like, “If you kneel for the national anthem, you don’t deserve to live,” he’s working to educate his colleagues on how listing agents should handle such situations. If it’s OK to tell clients to “paint their houses, redo their cabinets,” or “cut down a tree,” why can’t agents tell them to remove racist paraphernalia, he said.

The work is very much an extension of the Fair Housing Act, educating white colleagues, white homeowners and trying to ensure that Black people have an equal chance of buying a house. This summer, N.A.R.E.B. will begin a new mentorship program, which will support young people looking to get into the sector, in an effort to diversify the industry on a large scale.

It took Barbara Lowery, 50, of Indianapolis, decades of dreaming about being an agent to make the jump. “I only knew what I saw,” she said about her hesitance in her 20s. “I was just like, would I fit in?”, given her image of real estate agents as white men in business suits. “I did have kind of a fear, will they accept me?” The answer, unfortunately, is often no.

At her first showing in the spring of 2021, someone called the police. But she said she’s not going anywhere.

I come home, and I vent, and I keep it moving,” she said. “This is my real estate game. And if they don’t like me, if they dismiss me because of me and who I am as this Black woman, shame on you. You’re missing out.”

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