The “city of neighborhoods” is home to a thriving, and ever-expanding, multicultural market. As the local real estate terrain shifts, real estate professionals who keep an open mind, arm themselves with the necessary tools and commit to cultivating a diverse clientele base have the whole world at their door.
By Darhiana Mateo
Chicago has long been hailed as the “city of neighborhoods.” In this sprawling metropolis, communities are informally delineated by ethnic backgrounds. One need only travel a few miles in any direction to stumble on the sights, smells and sounds of the various ethnic enclaves that have dug roots in the city, infusing the changing real estate landscape with their distinct flavors. In the South Side, the colorful splendor of Chinatown exists almost side-by-side with the predominantly Mexican Little Village and Pilsen areas, as well as the historically African American neighborhoods. Up north, Ukrainian Village is only a few miles away from the proudly Puerto Rican Humboldt Park and University Village, home to the eclectic Little Italy neighborhood. These same distinct cultures can be found in a number of suburban areas as well. As the face of Chicagoland continues to evolve, real estate professionals who learn to cross these lines — both literally and figuratively — and cultivate a diverse clientele base are positioning their businesses for long-term viability.
It’s Not Always Easy
Joyce Gibson, broker and owner at J.A. Gibson Realty, is the current co-president of the Dearborn Realtist Board, a chapter of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers Inc., that fights for democracy in housing and advocates for the rights of African Americans and other people of color to achieve homeownership. “Chicago used to be labeled as one of the most segregated cities north of the Mason-Dixon line. And that really hasn’t changed much,” says Gibson. “While we’re not in a situation where discrimination is overt, we still have situations where, for example, homebuyers are discriminated against in lending.” The organization was founded in 1941, at a time when real estate agents or brokers of color were not allowed to participate in the Realtor organizations. This was a time when, in Chicago, property deeds contained a clause restricting who the property could not be sold to, including African Americans, Asians and Hispanics, Gibson says. “That was a fight that the Dearborn Realtist Board joined forces with the NAACP and Urban League to combat and took all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was struck down. Any cause that we feel restricts, impedes or somehow threatens the opportunity of people of color to have homeownership – it’s a cause that we will take up,” she says. “My passion is making sure there are always opportunities for people of color to own part of the American Dream.” It’s not only a challenge for many minorities to navigate the at times daunting process toward homeownership, but it can also be hard for Realtors of color to work outside of predominantly minority communities, Gibson says. “When you talk about real estate professionals [of color], the question still remains, what kind of business are they getting?” she says. “These agents are [typically] not getting the multimillion-dollar properties to market.” And in this era of home foreclosures, which Gibson points out are taking place at disproportionate rates in predominantly African American and Hispanic communities, many would-be homeowners are extremely cautious about taking the plunge. “A lot of minorities are more hesitant now to purchase homes because of what’s happened in the marketplace,” Gibson says. “When you are dealing with people who have been disenfranchised for a long time, the trust factor is just not there.” As any Realtor knows, establishing that trust is a foundation for any successful client/Realtor relationship.
The Trust Factor
For Alex Chaparro, a senior broker associate with @properties, more than half of his thriving client base is comprised of Latino buyers. Chaparro, of Puerto Rican descent, says he didn’t seek out this niche. “I’m a second-generation Realtor. I grew up in the real estate business. Being a Latino, and having a large family, the minority business for me wasn’t a niche market, it was just the people I knew,” he says. “Being a Spanish speaker, I found it was a natural fit for me to serve the community.” In his 17 years in the real estate business, Chaparro recognizes that a lot of strides have been made in terms of reaching out to the Latino market. But “we can always get better,” he says. “What I found was that my family and friends [encountered] challenges in being able to achieve this dream of homeownership. So I found that there were barriers that needed to be crossed for Latinos or any minorities to get housing. At that point, I made it a pursuit to be more involved with being an advocate for minorities,” he says. Chaparro became the first Latino president of the Chicago Association of Realtors in 2006 and is the incoming president of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP), effective March 2010. The two main barriers he identifies are the lack of information and the language challenge. “There is a lot of fear and misconception in the minority market. Especially now after the mortgage crisis, there’s even more lack of information out there. That has always been a barrier for housing, people not knowing how to get a mortgage, or the appropriate one for them,” he says. “Language is definitely another barrier.” “Looking at a demographic that is growing as fast as the Latino market, one needs to be aware of how to best serve that community. Part of that is building trust in that community and having expertise in that community,” he says. “I think there’s a phenomenal opportunity for practitioners to serve this market, but to be able to serve it properly, you need the right tools.”
Understanding Cultural Nuances
Speaking the language is an obvious benefit when reaching out to different communities. But being mindful and respectful of more subtle cultural nuances, practices and values may be just as important. For example, in the Latino community, “purchasing a property is a family affair,” says Chaparro. Many times, the children and other relatives will be present at the meetings and showings. “My understanding of this and involving the family in the conversation is helpful in clients wanting to work with me.” “We are an international city and understanding and respecting other people’s cultures and their perceptions of business practices is very important,” he says. “It’s important to know who your clients are and not assume anything. What has to happen is that there needs to be a lot of dialogue, a lot of asking questions. Realtors dealing with international clients should ask, ask and continue to ask questions and make sure the clients understand the process.” Being fluent in Japanese has undoubtedly translated into a competitive advantage for Dina Takai, an agent with Park Bench Realty in Arlington Heights. The Northwest suburb is home to a thriving Japanese community, and almost 80 percent of Takai’s client base is of Japanese descent. However, there’s more to communication than speaking the language. Sometimes it’s the unspoken communication that can make or break a deal. Takai’s familiarity with the different ways American and Japanese cultures do business has proved invaluable. “Japanese and American culture are 180 degrees apart. Americans tend to be very aggressive, which is not really favored in Japanese culture, where “yes” sometimes means “no.” With my client base, I try to be more of an advisor or counselor. I try to talk them through it instead of pushing them,” says Takai, who was born in Japan but raised in America. “Sometimes the smaller things matter the most.” Her intimate knowledge of gestures and customs and being able to communicate effectively with her clients helps put them at ease so they are confident moving forward with the biggest purchase of their lives, adds Takai, who earned the At Home with Diversity designation from the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Although she advertises in local Japanese publications, most of her referrals now come from word of mouth.
Michael Marin, broker and owner of Signature Realty – a 100 percent minority-owned business – says that trust is actually the most powerful marketing tool there is: “Trust is everything and when you gain [your clients’] trust, you have the most powerful marketing: word of mouth. It doesn’t matter if you know their language.” Diversity is much more than a buzzword for him. “I see it more as a lifestyle,” says Colombian-American Marin, who has traveled to 65 countries. “I am fascinated by all cultures.” Marin, who is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Realtors and previously served on the North Shore-Barrington Association of Realtors (NSBAR) task force for diversity, has channeled his appreciation for other cultures into a successful career. He focuses on the higher-end residential markets of Evanston, North Shore and Highland Park. His client base is truly diverse, encompassing Latinos (about 10 percent), Koreans, Filipinos, Russians, Israelis, Egyptians and Nigerians. Many of his international clients are professionals who have relocated to Chicago for work. “Professionally, it has made me more comfortable establishing sincere rapport with all clients and customers. I feel if I am aware of biases, I am more open to multiple levels of negotiation,” he says. “Also, I am aware of red flags or indicators, which may slow a deal down.” He advises colleagues to tap into the multicultural market available in Chicago. “You’re limiting yourself if you stay in your comfort zone because you will continue to have the same clients and, when that well dries up-” Marin volunteers to share his real estate expertise with non-profit organizations that often have a cultural or religious foundation. This serves as a bridge to explore strategic alliances and provide education on housing issues and facts, he says. “The current $8,000 dollar tax credit is a perfect example of an area that would be of great interest to the majority of ethnic markets.”
Organizations such as the NAHREP, the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA) and the Dearborn Realtist Board are dedicated to promoting sustainable homeownership opportunities for minority communities and empowering practitioners looking to serve these groups. Industry professionals do not need to belong to a certain ethnicity to join. They are inclusive organizations and open to anyone committed to their respective missions. The Dearborn Realtist Board has partnered with the NAHREP and AREAA in the past. “There’s a value to being collaborative,” Gibson says. “I think it’s important for real estate professionals because the only way we are ever going to get to that level playing field is that we really get to know more about each other and be able to work together. We can’t just consider working in our own little spheres – we’ve got to be able to step outside into the larger community. It takes everyone being committed.” The act of buying a home — the manifestation of the American Dream — holds special significance to immigrants and other minorities. “Homes embody so much more. It’s the family dinners, that sense of safety,” says Gibson. “Homeownership for minorities is not just about making that investment. It’s not about a swimming pool. We’re talking about a people that less than 100 years ago couldn’t own land. The simple act of owning land is so powerful.”
The Bottom Line
In a market as dynamic as that of Chicagoland, there’s no business sense in remaining static. A constantly evolving and diverse clientele base is a key ingredient for longevity, especially as the city — and world — becomes increasingly multicultural. As real estate professionals, actively working to expand your clientele circle and ensuring democracy in housing across ethnic lines is not only smart business but ethically sound. The domino effect of communication across cultures has far-reaching advantages, says Mark Ahmad, a Syrian immigrant and broker with Coldwell Banker. “Getting to know other cultures helps people understand other people, helps communities understand other communities and helps improve communication throughout society, eventually helping civilization,” says Ahmad, who was the top-selling agent in Lincolnwood in 2008. His key to success? Working hard and keeping an open mind. “I just really work hard and I provide great service for everyone regardless of their origin,” says Ahmad. Taking both small steps, such as simply keeping an eye out for diverse business opportunities, and larger steps, like learning or finessing a second language, participating in diversity training or getting involved with professional groups dedicated to assisting minority buyers, will yield long-lasting results. As the lines blur in the city of neighborhoods, Realtors who refuse to limit themselves are poised to reap the rewards. As are those Realtors, like Gibson, who truly embody a commitment to the communities they serve. “I live here. I work here. I go to church here,” she says. “I’m not just selling a house and walking away. I don’t have that luxury. I have a real responsibility here.” C.A.
Real Estate Broker
Coldwell Banker Lincolnwood
Senior Broker Associate
J.A. Gibson Realty
Park Bench Realty