Last November, Newsday turned the real estate industry upside down with its groundbreaking investigation of housing discrimination in Long Island, New York. As a result, real estate professionals and leaders began examining their role in maintaining the status quo, including Coldwell Banker CEO Ryan Gorman.
The report lit a fire under Gorman, who was the only CEO to attend the New York State Senate’s Newsday hearing. In the year since, he’s extensively researched the history of discrimination in real estate, launched a diversity initiative and has participated in countless, heartwrenching conversations with agents and franchisees of color about their experience as professionals and people.
Most recently, Gorman has decided to extend the conversation to the stage of Coldwell Banker’s 2020 Gen Blue virtual experience where he’ll interview Coldwell Banker Montclair Branch Vice President Roderick Logan about fair housing, diversity and inclusion.
Before hitting the main stage, Gorman sat down with Inman to talk about furthering fair housing, the real estate industry’s role in providing housing equality and his personal growth since reading Newsday‘s report. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Inman: It’s a pleasure to speak with you again, especially about such an important topic. Gen Blue is coming up this week and you’ll be speaking about fair housing during the general session. Can you provide some insight into what that conversation will be like?
Gorman: I will cover a lot of different stuff for my segment. A portion of it will be spending time with one of our managers who actually was the agent who helped me buy the house that I’m sitting in right now. He’s now a manager of ours and also a leader in a lot of our different initiatives — everything from our data and technology stuff to our diversity initiatives.
He also has personal experience on Long Island and will help put into context some of what we as an industry have been talking about throughout the year from a fair housing perspective. I think it will link back to some of the larger questions and conversations that have been going on throughout society through most of this year as well.
Some of it will touch upon the broader picture for Coldwell Banker, but a lot of it is personalizing and putting a face on some of the discussions we’ve had to date.
I’m looking forward to watching it. I’ve been doing a lot of learning and reporting about fair housing lately, and I know you’ve been doing plenty of research as well. What have you learned about fair housing over the past year that you didn’t know before?
As we talked about before, I thought I did understand the history of housing-related laws and practices and fair housing and discrimination. It wasn’t really until last year that I really dedicated myself to achieving a more granular understanding of that history of housing discrimination, and it’s helped me to more fully appreciate a lot of the work we still need to do to change the future.
At a personal level, we know housing determines oftentimes the school where you send your kids, the tax revenue- funded services that are available to you, the transportation options and the job options. So much of what impacts a family’s life and an individual’s life is dictated in part by where and how they choose to live, and a lot of those societal accomplishments and challenges can be traced back to housing.
I think, in general, we have an intimate understanding of how important that is, where and how someone lives, for any individual family with whom we’re working. But [it’s also about] having a more well-rounded understanding of how the cumulative decisions, the cumulative guidance and the cumulative choices that people make really impact society more generally. My understanding of that is much better today than it was a year ago.
It’s helped me with many of our decisions as a company on how much we dedicate ourselves to increasing awareness and understanding and not just the history, but the actions we can take in the future to make things better.
That feeds perfectly into my next question. How well do you think the real estate industry has done with furthering fair housing over the past 50-plus years? Where has it succeeded? Where is there room for improvement?
We have a lot of work to do, but I don’t want to minimize the progress that has been made. I mean, 50 years ago, we literally had housing developers telling prospective buyers and even newspaper reporters that they were building a white-only community. I mean, they would say those words and they were getting federal subsidies to do so. We are a world away from that today, and I don’t want to minimize how much progress has made.
However, today, if a developer were building a new community, it would not be unusual if the ultimate buyers were not as diverse as the county, for instance, in which the community were built. There’s a lot of reasons for that and I think those reasons really represent the opportunities we have for improvement.
I’ll go down one more level, which is at the neighborhood level. We’re not demonstrating the level of diversity that matches that broader market. So for instance, a metropolitan area may be diverse, but that doesn’t mean that each block in that neighborhood or that city reflects that level of diversity.
I’ll give one more example in terms of some of the successes as well as the challenges that we have remaining. If you go back over the last, not just 50 years, but 100 years, you have waves of immigrant groups who have a steadily, usually positive trajectory in terms of growing homeownership, [although its] not as quickly and not as fairly as any of us would like. But the trend lines were once again, positive across those groups.
That’s not true when it comes to Black homeownership, or in many cases, the homeownership rate of majority-minority communities. There there are lots of underlying reasons for those things and that’s where the opportunity remains.
So, how can real estate professionals make learning about fair housing a priority beyond the required training or education? What are the knowledge gaps that need to be filled?
I think real estate professionals, in general, often struggle with how to address areas that may be one step removed from race. For instance, practically every licensee knows that they should not be answering questions about the racial composition of a community if a client asks them. But knowing how important school districts are for many buyers, I think a lot of our licensees are aware that school information has oftentimes been connected to or correlated with racial composition questions.
So, we have many agents throughout the industry who aren’t sure exactly how to serve their clients by giving them information and resources and answering their questions without inadvertently giving information that may be violating the spirit of some fair housing regulation.
There’s that sort of gray area people are really striving to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the law, but not necessarily fully understanding how to do so in the real world, in a real-life scenario of a client asking them questions with no nefarious intent.
One other area is unconscious bias. We, the National Association of Realtors and others are trying to work to elevate the understanding of unconscious bias, to really destigmatize it, to remove the concepts of blame or fault from the discussion so that we can really all improve the outcomes of the lives we touch.
Some of the learning that we do is really geared to just make sure people flag issues. As an example, I had an agent in New York who called me a few months ago. She said, “I just finished my New York State required training on fair housing, and now I have these other pieces of training that are being requested of me here. Is that duplicative? Do I need to do all of them?”
I said, “You do need to do all of them, but they’re meant to build upon one another and they’re meant to be a good learning experience.” She said, “Okay, well, I’m really, really busy, but I’ll do it because it’s important to me, and I want to make sure I understand everything.”
That was on a Friday night and on Saturday night, she called me and said, “You’ll never believe this, but I actually have a really difficult fair housing situation that I’m facing right now with this one property and these two clients I’m dealing with, and none of us really actually know what the right thing to do is. I don’t know who to call, so I’m calling you.”
That was great, right? That is the education working, so to speak. She was able to flag a real-time issue and we were able to make sure everyone was well served in that in that instance. That’s the goal: It’s to raise awareness up to a level where people, at a minimum, know who to connect with and how to be able to make sure they’re serving all their clients as well as they possibly can.
How can brokers and leaders help their agents navigate that gray zone? What resources and help do they need to make available? How can they offer the real-time assistance you just spoke about?
When fair housing, training, education and discussion is treated just like any other really important aspect of our business, then I think it will yield that outcome.
So if you’re a manager holding an office meeting, you may be talking about the inventory in the market today, what’s going on with interest rates or the most recent challenges that are facing the market. You may also be talking with agents about how to better serve their clients, doing real live sessions with them, and role-playing about some some objections to overcome or some, multiple bidding situations.
[Fair housing education] can and should live right alongside all that’s core to our industry. It’s not a box to check. It’s not a once-every-two-years certification. It’s part of how we serve every day.
If we treat it as such, and we integrate it into the conversations that we have, and we try to speak candidly and openly about it, and not be fearful of having discussions with people, even in real-time situations, then I think we can improve our service levels just as we improve our service levels with all the other aspects that we really focus on.
Your comment about thinking about fair housing beyond just race made me think about a class I was a teaching assistant for journalism school. The class aimed to help students connect the dots between race, class, gender, religion and sexual orientation — all of which are protected classes. How can agents get better at connecting the dots?
I think real-life examples are really helpful, especially when it’s in a safe space. It will help them to do role playing, or to have a coach or to go over a recently challenging situation with a peer or a colleague. Those who are really intent on getting better and overcome their own natural fears of opening themselves up and being vulnerable.
I think that’s what’s necessary here, to create a safe space in an individual office, in a group setting at a MLS board meeting in a brand conference space, where we can use real-life examples, not just textbook examples of challenges that we’ve had, and learn peer to peer, not just top-down.
I think that can be a tremendous benefit to everyone, but that requires that creation of a safe space, the destigmatization of not knowing, of not understanding, of not appreciating how the words you speak may be perceived or taken by the person hearing them.
It’s all about the perception you’re leaving and the impression you’re leaving, as opposed to focusing on what you meant to do. That really requires a lot of safety, comfort, discussion and iteration for that level of understanding to grow.
What is Coldwell Banker doing on a daily basis to create a safe space for agents and leaders to have difficult conversations and expose mistakes for the purpose of better serving consumers?
We’re integrating it into what we do. We’re training on it, we’re celebrating the positive role we have in the creation of communities in the real spirit of fair housing, and treating it as a fundamental principle of our industry, our company and our values.
We’re really focusing on the results we achieve, not just the the energy we invest, but the outcomes that we get. That’s hard, I think, to measure those results sometimes, especially for smaller companies. I can see how it’s even harder for them because you need large sample sets and large amounts of data to really understand how you’re positively serving communities over time.
We don’t have information like the mortgage industry, which has information on consumer race and ethnicity, etc. We don’t have that in our industry other than self-reporting of agent identity. We have no direct consumer information.
So it’s really how we impact and how we serve over time and those results are what we’re holding ourselves accountable to. Coldwell Banker started trying to raise the level of integrity in the industry 114 years ago, and you know, I guess we’re just getting warmed up. We’re working to focus on those results here too, in fair housing and elsewhere and not just the efforts.
Finally, what do you hope this general session will provide to anyone who watches it? What do you hope they’ll take away from the conversation about fair housing they can use in their day-to-day life?
Well, for starters, it’s, as you’ve heard, it’s not a fair housing session. It’s our general session and that’s because this topic doesn’t live beside our work. It’s core to our work. One of the things Coldwell Banker has done well in our advertising, in our marketing and the way that we’ve operated the company is really putting a human face on our work and our brand.
Part of what we’ll be doing in the opening general session is to speak with just one member, Roderick Logan, with a touch on many different topics, drawing on his personal experiences and his professional experiences. And we’ll touch on everything from fair housing to data science to new product rollouts.
The goal with every opening general session of Gen Blue is to inform, entertain and inspire with our opening, and in this case, that inspiration will link back to the letter and spirit of fair housing.