The grief and sadness felt by Chicagoans after a weekend of violence and destruction in response to ongoing evidence of racial bias and police brutality was palpable for Colleen Harper, an @properties real estate professional serving the South Loop. “It’s an emotional rollercoaster right now for everyone in the city,” she said. “Sometimes I just want to sit down and cry.”
But instead of breaking down, Harper started reaching out. She has a number of commercial real estate clients who needed help securing their buildings against additional damage, so she went to work finding them the help they needed.
She noted that, while the Minneapolis police officer who sparked the protest by killing an unarmed man named George Floyd is now in custody, she fears that violent protests will continue in Chicago until the other police officers who stood by him are arrested. While it pains her to think that more destruction is on the way, she doesn’t blame those who are expressing their outrage.
“These looters who come in from other places are the problem. Peaceful protestors have their hearts in the right place,” she said, adding that she hopes her attempts to lend a helping hand will spark others to do good. “All you can do is do better, one by one, and hopefully it will be contagious.”
Bringing in expert help
Harper was able to connect three separate commercial clients with professionals who could help them board up their windows. She noted that it’s not as simple a task as one might think, and her clients were having trouble securing both materials and skilled workers.
“They don’t have the expertise,” she said, noting the boards have to be installed properly in order to avoid additional property damage. “You have to anchor them to the building without ruining the building or shattering the window.”
One client, the owner of OMG Spa on south Michigan Avenue, had a daunting 90 feet of windows to secure. “Chloe comes from China, so her sphere is her clients… I try to be there for her,” Harper said. “This woman has invested her heart and soul into the South Loop, servicing clients.”
Harper also worked with One Off Hospitality Group to find another contractor who could start boarding off the many restaurants they have in the city. She also connected LIPS Drag Show Palace, Restaurant & Bar with contractors, noting that the group who runs the space is from New York, so they don’t have the local contacts to get something like this done.
“I feel like I’m a matchmaker, not a person who’s in sales, and that’s what I do in every aspect of my business,” she said. “We as Realtors, some of us have connections. It might come easier for us to make that match.”
But even for those who don’t have such expert connections, there’s a lot real estate professionals can do to help. “What every Realtor can do might be different,” said Nick Libert, managing broker of EXIT Strategy Realty. “We can go out there with something as simple as garbage bags and brooms.”
While that was the first thing Libert did to help out, he’s since expanded and recruited others in his office to help out. Libert noted some business owners simply need help bringing valuable items inside, such as planters and other fixtures. In places where grocery stores have been looted, he noted that locals need access to food, which he’s working to coordinate with restaurants that are still able to put together meals. In other spots where fires have occurred, he’s thinking about ways to mitigate smoke damage.
“It’s spreading everywhere,” he said. “Our agents are in their own neighborhoods trying to find out what the needs are.”
Getting hit from all sides
Many of the businesses being impacted by looters are already down on their luck after months of lockdown due to the novel coronavirus. Much of Chicagoland was ready to head into the third phase of reopening this week, and Libert noted that many of the small business owners he’s been speaking with are still hoping to do so. “Their intent is to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so,” he said. “They are desperate to get back to work.”
Libert said he hopes more Chicagoans will make the extra effort to patronize small shops during this time. “Don’t assume just because there’s a board on the window, they’re not open,” he said. “You can help out by buying there.”
Each of the businesses Harper helped out are suffering from a double whammy of closures due to the coronavirus pandemic and now the uncertainty caused by social unrest. She said she hopes there will be changes to the rules for how businesses are allowed to spend their Paycheck Protection Program money, because it’s hard for restaurants, spas and entertainment venues to spend money on payrolls when there are no customers for their workers to serve.
“How can you use that when your employees can’t come back to work?” she asked. “What they needed most was the ability to spend the money on rent.”
Overall, Harper is worried about which mainstays in her neighborhood will make it through these trying times. “I don’t know how many businesses are not going to survive,” she said. “We’ll see the fallout in the next few months.”
Defusing the situation
When speaking to Chicago Agent magazine, Libert was getting ready to head out into his Lakeview community again. Helicopters circled overhead in preparation for the protest planned for tonight that will head north from the Belmont Red Line CTA station to Wilson Avenue.
“They’re hoping it’s peaceful, but there’s no guarantee,” he said, noting that while some of his friends plan to join the protest, others will be joining his so-called cleanup army. “We all just have to respect each other’s life experiences. … My plan is to immediately go out and help clean up the damage.”
In terms of helping fix some of the underlying problems that have caused protests to unfurl across the nation, Libert does think real estate has a place in that conversation, both in terms of expanding access to affordable housing and supporting local businesses. “The thing that I keep going back to is fair housing. … It starts with having the opportunity to have a home or apartment that’s yours,” he said. “We have an obligation as Realtors. We put roofs over people’s heads. … We also have an obligation to the small business owners in our neighborhoods.”
And even though social media has helped to ignite passions and possibly spark violence, Libert noted that it’s making the impossible possible when it comes to coordinating the response.
“Social media is a big help,” he said, adding that because people aren’t able to gather due to the social distancing guidelines put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, Facebook and Instagram have become triage centers of a sort. Libert is asking people to tag him if they need help, and is pushing out verified updates via the social media platform’s stories feature, so the information is more up to date than cluttering the narrative with static posts. “The information is changing every few hours.”
Libert suggested that agents check in on the social media platforms being run by their alderman’s office as well as those being run by trusted community organizations and religious institutions. But also, brokers have a hidden tool in their CRM. “Use your client database,” Libert said. The most important thing is “just reaching out and contacting each other … We have to help each other.”
Harper noted that, at first, she felt helpless but that reaching out and doing what she could made her feel better. She said the deeply personal nature of the real estate transaction lends itself to lasting connections that can make a big difference in troubled times. “When you spend so much time with a person, you build that relationship … Seeing the vision of what that person wants to build,” she said. “We can be more of a help than maybe we realize.”