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The place of race in the Realtor organization

by Meg White

The place of race in the Realtor organization

Shortly after the Houston Association of Realtors announced that it would be replacing the term “master” with “primary” in property descriptions, Chicago-based brokerage @properties followed suit, phasing out the term in its corporate marketing and recommending that affiliated agents do the same.

The move sparked a wide-ranging discussion within the industry as to the impact of such changes, and whether or not they really target the core issue of structural racism in the real estate industry. To that end, Midwest Real Estate Data LLC began polling its members to decide whether or not to make a similar change to their MLS database.

Click to see full survey results

Jon Broadbooks, chief communications officer for MRED, noted that, because the board would be meeting after this issue of Chicago Agent magazine was scheduled to print, it would be too early to comment at length on the topic. Still, he added that the board is “very much engaged on the issue, as are many of our subscribers.”

In an official statement, the MLS noted that it’s “mindful to first seek input from subscribers and to make sure we fully understand the impact of any policy change.” But while the MLS’ decision will largely dictate the way listing data is disseminated throughout Chicagoland, local Realtor associations note they have a role to play, too.

Chicago Association of Realtors CEO Michelle Mills Clement said the association is in discussions about the term’s use now, but that the topic goes much further than one word. “We’re going to be bringing it to our board,” she said, noting that whatever they decide will be sent as a recommendation to MRED. Still, she sees bigger issues around race and equity that need tackling as well. “I don’t want to lose sight of that larger issue.”

John Gormley, CEO of the Mainstreet Organization of Realtors, said he trusts MRED leadership to examine the issue carefully and come to a solution one way or another. “I have full confidence in them,” he said. However, he did note that associations and brokerages have to look at the issue of listing displays on their own as well. MORe just launched a new global network of property listings called Proxio, and Gormley said he does not believe the word “master” is used to describe bedrooms or bathrooms in it. While MORe’s board isn’t scheduled to meet this summer, he added that he expects there will be an executive meeting where the topic will be discussed.

Gormley, who has ties to Houston as a former communications professional for the Texas Association of Realtors, noted that when he initially got phone calls from HAR affiliates on the issue, it struck him as a no-brainer. “At first I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t we be for this?’ And I still feel that way, but I’ve learned that it’s not as clear cut or easy as it seems,” he said, echoing Clement’s feeling that the change is only a “baby step” in terms of what needs to be done to address the larger problem of racism in real estate.

On a personal level, the first African American CEO of CAR has mixed feelings about the word change. “Truthfully, as Michelle, it doesn’t strike me,” Clement said, noting that racism is an everyday part of the lives of Black Chicagoans. “As a product of a segregated Chicago … it’s so much deeper to me than a term.”

In addition to their long-standing work to address systemic racism, such as promoting the At Home With Diversity designation and educating agents about fair housing issues, CAR has taken a number of recent actions in this arena. Last year, the association issued a public apology for its role in housing discrimination and launched its new diversity committee, called The 77, which assigns a CAR representative as a liaison to each of Chicago’s neighborhoods. They recently hosted a webinar on racial issues and rolled out a new seven-week training program on race and privilege for staff.

MORe is looking into creating a new diversity committee as well, Gormley said, to both broaden representation in the association’s leadership and serve more diverse groups in the larger communities where its members live and work. But for an industry that has traditionally restricted itself to policing the real estate transaction only, the conversation about racial equity and discrimination happening around the country has prompted some to think about broadening the Realtor mandate.

Gormley said that this fall, MORe’s board will likely look into strengthening its bylaws around expulsion to see if that might be helpful in these efforts, but ultimately, the industry’s code of ethics is administered by National Association of Realtors.

Traditionally, ethics violations have needed to be in the context of a real estate transaction in order to be penalized, but Gormley noted that NAR’s professional standards committee is looking into expanding the rules so that, say, a Realtor who makes blatantly racist statements on social media could be disciplined. “Historically, the code of ethics has been in a narrower lane,” Gormley said. “This idea would be to broaden that.”

Clement noted that associations have to work hard to reach those who might not see that real estate and Chicagoland are both steeped in systemic racism. “Those are the people we want to reach: the people who don’t understand. … That element is so important, because there are so many people in the industry who don’t know that this still happens,” she said. “Fair housing events are usually some of our lower-attended events. … How do we get more people into the room?”

For the unconvinced, Clement suggested they pick up books such as “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein and “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation,” by Natalie Moore. “They can start to educate themselves,” Clement said. “Everybody has to take a stand.”

Gormley agreed. “The events that we’ve seen over this spring and summer make it abundantly clear that racism is still part of our society,” he said. “We want to be part of the long-term solution. We really can’t abide racism. It has no place in the Realtor organization.”

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