2002-09-03 Holland Sentinel We all benefit from fair housing practices

We all benefit from fair housing practices
Holland Sentinel

A few weeks after my 18th birthday I passed the real estate exam. Within a year, I was a broker with my own firm, making me at the time, the youngest Realtor in Florida. Thirteen years later, I dissolved my company to pursue my ministry calling. At the peak of my business career I employed 100-plus agents, about 35 percent of whom were Euroamericans, 30 percent were Latino/as, 25 percent were African-Americans, and 10 percent consisted of other groups. Not only were we recognized as one of the most diverse real estate firms in Miami, but also one of the most financially successful. I credit my business achievement to our embrace of diversity, which allowed us to help clients across racial and ethnic lines. The more people we helped, the more commissions we earned.

I learned this economic profitability of inclusion with the first house I ever sold. It was 1977. A black couple entered our office looking for a home, although our office was in a predominately Euroamerican neighborhood. The office hired me hoping to tap the emerging Latina/o market. This couple was ignored until my colleagues passed them onto me, who was licensed for less than a week. As I talked with them, I discovered that he was a medical doctor, recently employed by the local hospital. He was hoping to live within walking distance.

The fact that the neighborhood surrounding the hospital at the time was exclusive and white didn’t bother me. I showed them one house. They loved it, offering full price. Fortunately when I showed it the owner was not home, for when he discovered the buyer’s skin pigmentation he blew a fuse, claiming he would never have sold them the property if he knew.

But it wasn’t until I left the profession, and was in need of housing, that I fully understood the devastating and prevalent reality of racism in housing. For example, when it was my turn to find a home in Holland, I discovered that some of the houses that were available became “sold” once I pulled up the driveway. Others, hearing my accent, saved me the time of driving to the property by never returning my calls. One real estate sales-person would only show me homes on blocks that were heavily populated by Latino/as (this illegal practice is known as steering).

What I experienced is not unique, rather, it is a common experience expressed among many of the Latino/as, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans I have personally talked to in our fair city. Finally I found a Realtor who treated me with the same dignity I used to offer my clients. I bought my house from her, and made it a point to refer her to my friends.

Something is morally wrong when our labor is requested (which contributes to the economic prosperity of the city) while we are simultaneously blocked form living where we want. Or worse, when we move into a neighborhood only to watch Euroamerican neighbors quickly move away (known as white flight). Sadly, it only takes 8 percent of the neighborhood to consist of families of color to trigger “white flight.”

As the former president of one of the largest boards of Realtors in the nation, I truly understand their faulty logic. They want to sell before real estate prices drop because I moved into their neighborhood. In reality, it’s their racism that is driving down real estate process. As more white homeowners scramble to place their houses on the market, the supply of homes increases. Price and demand dictates that as more units become available, prices drop. Once fear sets in, a “cut-your-losses” attitude results in more tumbling prices. Lower prices make the houses affordable to segments of the population that, until now, were priced out of the neighborhood. As they begin to buy these houses (or move in as tenants because the owner simply cannot compete with the gluttony of their fellow white neighbors trying to sell), the downward price spiral intensifies. There goes the neighborhood not because we moved in, but as a consequence of racism and whit fear.

What can you do? Welcome us into the neighborhood when we move in don’t take flight. Rent and sell to people regardless of their race or ethnicity. Report illegal acts of discrimination that occur in housing. And finally, support the formation of training independent testers so that violators of the law can be held accountable.

Why do we need testers? According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development testers found that rental housing was more available to Euroamericans 45 percent of the time, and homes to buy were 34 percent more available. I suspect the percentages are higher here. I hope you can prove me wrong!

The Rev. Miguel de la Torre is a religion professor who has published several books dealing with issues of race, class and gender.