David is CEO of Move, Inc./realtor.com. Realtor.com makes buying, selling, and living in homes easier and more rewarding for everyone.
I joined the team at realtor.com back in February, coming from a background in e-commerce and digital marketplaces. I’m pretty sure my experience in those spaces helped me get the job. While approaches vary, nearly everyone in the real estate industry — agents, brokers, Realtor associations, portals — is trying to leverage technology to bring people home.
In the wake of Covid-19, industry reporting, events, meetings and social conversations all repeated variations on a common theme: The realities of social distancing are going to transform how homes are bought and sold, with evolutions in 3D and video tours, virtual collaboration platforms, and digital closings.
Then a man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. His death was far from the first case of racial injustice in this country, but it sparked a collective outrage and forced many of us — myself included — to examine and reflect on what we can do to make a real difference.
I was inspired by realtor.com’s purpose and mission when I accepted the CEO position. Where we live influences how we live and who we spend time with; it impacts our quality of life and our sense of safety and security. Home is so important in so many ways. And that’s why the painful realities of racial discrimination should motivate those of us in the real estate industry to do our part to eliminate the current biases and systemic conditions that perpetuate inequalities in homeownership, neighborhoods and communities in every corner of our country.
Fifty-two years after the Fair Housing Act was passed, the real estate industry — along with the rest of society — still struggles with the contrast between aspirations for equality and the realities we face. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report, in the first quarter of this year, nearly 74% of white, non-Hispanic households owned their own home, compared with 44% of Black households.
Late last year, when Newsday published a report describing widespread evidence that minority homebuyers in Long Island, New York, were treated differently than white homebuyers during their home search, it was a sobering wake-up call. In that study, minority homebuyers typically received fewer listings than their white counterparts and were more likely to be asked to prove they had qualified for a mortgage before they could tour a home. Many home shoppers received recommendations for homes in different neighborhoods, depending on whether the buyers were white or minorities.
While the Fair Housing Act made redlining illegal, reports like this demonstrate that the practice still occurs, whether it’s the neighborhoods people of color are shown or the process of securing a mortgage. These practices and attitudes contribute to and exacerbate the ongoing racial disparities in homeownership rates.
It’s tempting to think that technology can change all this. After all, an algorithm doesn’t know the color of your skin, and digital home search and virtual tour features give all homebuyers the ability to explore, research and educate themselves about the homes and communities that are right for them.
No doubt, technology tools can empower people and artificial intelligence and machine learning can improve decision-making. But AI systems and online searches can be biased, too. As Safiya Umoja Noble states in her 2018 book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, “Ranking is itself information that also reflects the political, social and cultural values of the society that search engines operate within.”
These are very difficult issues, and meaningful change can seem daunting. However, from where I sit, at the intersection of the real estate and technology industries, there are several steps we can all take to address racism and racial disparity in home search and homeownership.
Start at home, so to speak.
Our offices and work environments (virtual or not) should create cultures that encourage and celebrate diversity. Shortly after protests began across the country, we held an all-hands meeting during which our employees shared their feelings, reactions and personal stories surrounding racism and racial injustice. The session was extremely powerful and emotional, and it has helped set the tone in our company as we move forward.
Real estate companies must continue to encourage these meetings and conversations — some of which can be difficult — within their own offices and across the industry. There is work to do to ensure greater diversity and inclusion, and we must make sure our leaders, managers and HR staff are aligned to address these systemic issues and forge a path forward.
Attack the problem from multiple angles.
We all have unique roles to play. Many agents and brokers are actively engaged in their communities; they can work with local community and business leaders to create solutions in their neighborhoods and beyond. Associations can help organize their members to influence public policy at the local, state and national levels. Proptech can create, improve and enhance technologies that deliver information and services free of racial bias or influence.
Become a change agent.
Whether you’re an individual agent/broker, own a large real estate firm, manage an association or run a tech company, think about what you can do beginning today to bring about meaningful change:
• Be willing to have difficult conversations with colleagues, customers and clients, and listen with an open mind and empathy.
• Consider getting involved in industry groups such as NAREB and AREAA that support diversity and inclusion.
• Take a good look at your company’s current business practices and approaches to address unconscious biases.
• Support policymakers and public policies that represent real change in real estate and beyond — and encourage others to engage.
We’re all confronting myriad challenges right now, and the place we call home makes a big difference in how we cope with crises and live our lives. Those of us in the business of bringing people home should all be looking for ways to influence and transform that experience for everyone.
Forbes Real Estate Council is an invitation-only community for executives in the real estate industry. Do I qualify?