Beyond cleanup: How the real estate industry can help stamp out racism in Chicago

by Meg White

On a normal day, Alisa McLaughlin never really wears her Realtor pin. But these aren’t normal times.

After the looting that devastated her South Shore neighborhood, the @properties broker associate left her home and headed down 71st Street. “I put that pin on my lapel … and I went for a walk to see who needed help,” she said. “People need to know that this is not the end of the world, and we can get through this.”

She spent the day talking with neighbors, sweeping up glass and seeing what was needed in her area. While walking back home with one of her neighbors, McLaughlin noticed roughly 100 sheets of paper blowing around in the wind on 67th Street. She picked up one and saw what appeared to be a collection of customer data, including names, addresses and credit card numbers with expiration dates and signatures. “I said to my neighbor, ‘We have to pick up every single one of these,’” she said, noting there could be serious consequences if they got into the wrong hands. “I see each page as a person that I helped just by being out on a walk home.”

How the industry needs to change

While McLaughlin said she’s proud to see how other real estate professionals are stepping up to help out in similar ways, she wants to see her profession root out discrimination among its ranks. “Real estate agents have a huge responsibility because of what we have done as an organization and as a profession in the past,” she said, referring to steering and redlining that were rampant as recently as a few decades ago.

That unfortunate history still plagues the industry, McLaughlin said. She’s had countless experiences in the recent past where fellow agents questioned whether her black clients could afford a property or neighborhood (rather than simply saying a price isn’t negotiable or asking if the clients were prequalified), suggested buyers look in other neighborhoods or disparaged the South Side as a place where no one would want to live.

While not every case is necessarily overt racism, McLaughlin noted that such behavior is not only quite often a violation of the Fair Housing Act, but it also runs counter to the spirit of what it means to serve all residents of the city. “I don’t think they are conscious of what they’re doing,” she said. “But you would never do that on the North Side. … You shouldn’t have one set of questions for one race and one set of questions for another.”

McLaughlin is quick to point out that this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day, and that some 95% of the real estate professionals she comes into contact with do not express such views. But she added that it is an insidious practice that continues and that if an agent knows of a neighborhood, condo association or fellow broker who is actively working against diversity and inclusion, it’s important to speak up. “Some people might say it’s semantics, but it’s important,” she said. “That 5% is affecting the thinking of lots of other people.”

The real estate industry can also embrace diversity and inclusion by thinking deeply about how agents interact with each other. After well over a decade in the business, McLaughlin serves a diverse group of clients of all races and incomes — everyone from renters looking for a $700-a-month apartment to a person who owns several million-dollar-plus homes around the world.

However, she noted that almost all of the leads she gets from other agents are renters who are looking for landlords who will take Section 8 vouchers. While she appreciates that they’re trying to be nice by offering business that doesn’t necessarily fit into their niche, she’d rather those agents use @properties’ internal app to spread the news about the potential client. “These leads, they’re not leading me anyplace,” she said. “Just put it in there and let it go. [That way,] you’re not pinpointing who should have it.”

Questioning assumptions and the system

Ever since she joined the debate team in middle school, McLaughlin has felt challenging the status quo was part of her mission. That training has stuck with her and today she sees a need to question common assertions on both sides of the debate around racism, she said.

“I have some black friends who say all white people are this or that, and there are white people who feel that all black people are this or that. I say ‘no,’ and challenge those thoughts when I can,” she said. “Recently, I have had white friends ask how they can get involved, but they’re still thinking of themselves as separated from the situation. I suggest they just be a part of it. Don’t ask ‘How can I help you?’ Make it be, ‘How can I help us?”

After all, she said, this kind of thinking is what got us where we are today. “We’ve all been brainwashed,” she said. “The cop that killed George Floyd, there’s a system that made him think, ‘I’m better than him.’”

Rather than seeing that system as any one group of people’s fault, McLaughlin said, we all need to do our part to fix it. “The system has no color. … It’s just words on paper,” she said. “We have to do the hard work of looking at the system.”

McLaughlin said one of the ways she’s working to help others understand the issues that led to the unrest rippling across the city is by helping to produce a new documentary on the subject. “Chicago at the Crossroad,” written and directed by Brian Schodorf, digs into the policies, laws and history behind the violence that plagues many Chicago communities — particularly the discriminatory housing policies that intensified and solidified the city’s segregation. 

McLaughlin said part of her passion for the film comes from her belief that a great deal of racism comes from a lack of understanding between people. “One of the things that we’re working on is to get people to think of it as an education issue,” she said, noting that she’d like to see a course on diversity and inclusion added as a core part of every schools’ curriculum across the country. “Getting people to think critically is part of my biggest task right now.”

After helping cleanup efforts wherever she saw an opportunity this week, McLaughlin is now looking into volunteering in a more formal way, possibly with My Block, My Hood, My City. That local nonprofit is organizing cleanup efforts by collecting donations, gathering volunteers and taking requests from small businesses impacted by the unrest. They’re also continuing a program to help protect seniors from COVID-19 exposure by delivering viral response packages and wellness calls. The group’s founder and CEO, Jahmal Cole, spoke at a press conference held by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot last weekend in response to the unrest. Cole encouraged Chicagoans to ask themselves, “What’s something simple I can do that’ll have a positive impact on my block?”

“We’ve all got a role to play in fighting injustice in Chicago,” he said. “If you start with the simple things, you develop the muscle it takes to take on bigger challenges.”

For real estate professionals who aren’t sure what they can do at this fraught moment, McLaughlin said it’s important to be present in the community and willing to put in the effort to make real change. “I don’t want to just talk about it; I want to do the work,” she said. “I think we should all speak up against injustice. … We need to be the light in our streets.”

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  • kim kerbis says:

    love everything about this, alisa! i am so proud to know you and honored to work with you! thank you for fighting the good fight and for encouraging others to do the same! xo

  • Molly Surowitz says:

    Thank you for your honesty and commitment Alisa!
    And thank you Chicago Agent Magazine for bringing us diverse voices.

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