(I submitted this to a number of media publications. More hard numbers would help bring this to life. Until then, I wanted to make sure this conversation begins. If you have any anecdotes to share, please do. -Scott)
In 1958, Harry Belafonte, the famous Jamaican-born singer and performer, found it nearly impossible to lease an apartment in Manhattan, despite his renown. He eventually moved into a building on the Upper West Side, an apartment he had rented with help from a white friend. When this workaround was discovered, the landlord asked him to leave.
In the face of such blatant racism, Belafonte decided to buy this building with some friends, converting it from a rental into its own cooperative building. A splashy move, to be sure. Of course, few buyers would ever have the financial wherewithal to take such steps, in New York City or any other area with exploding real estate values.
Last year, an investigative journalism piece uncovered that real estate agents in Long Island were still directing minority buyers and renters to different neighborhoods than white counterparts, an action formally called “steering” – which is unlawful across America. A lawsuit is pending.
We do not have to look outside of New York City to find similar experiences. There is evidence, even today, that cooperative buildings, known informally as co-ops, are not as inclusive as they could be. For a city that is a bastion of liberal politics and their constituent causes, and its residents the original “melting pot” of America, a lack of diversity within cooperative buildings sends a conflicting message.
It is time to begin an open conversation around how to effect real change in these buildings and current admissions policies. There are immediate, concrete steps that these corporations and their Boards of Directors can take to become more inclusive.
As one enters a building, the team of door staff, concierges, porters, handymen, and superintendents creates the first impression. 32BJ SEIU is the union which represents these workers in New York City. In partnership with 32BJ SEIU, Boards of Directors could demand to see resumes from a broader pool of candidates, facilitated by building management companies. In turn, these managers could also create pre-qualified lists of contractors and vendors representing Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC’s) for any capital improvements.
Cooperatives must also take a look at the composition of their current shareholders. They may be surprised to learn how segregated their “neighborhoods” truly are. For example, in one well-known cooperative along Central Park West, it counts only one Black shareholder out of more than 200 owners in its building. Speaking to shareholders in other cooperatives, this is not an uncommon ratio.
Cooperatives are not currently required by law to disclose why they might reject a buyer’s application to purchase in their building. Murky admissions policies do not engender confidence in the application process for many buyers, certainly not for buyers concerned about discrimination. Therefore, any proactive measures to clearly communicate admissions policies- certainly any policies of inclusion- would be a smart, welcome step. Just as houses of worship put an “All Are Welcome” sign on their doors, co-ops can send the same message. In this case, financially qualified buyers of any stripe could feel confident that they would be able to live in an apartment they love, in any building where that apartment is located.
Over my nearly two-decades in Manhattan Residential Real Estate as an Associate Broker, I have found that my BIPOC clients are often only interested in purchasing condominiums. This cannot be entirely coincidence. The Real Estate Board of New York, far and away NYC’s largest real estate advocacy and educational organization, could encourage managing agents and Boards of Directors to sign Diversity & Inclusion pledges, committing to identifying and encouraging minority buyers to purchase in their buildings. At a time when buyers have the upper hand, any steps to broaden the buyer pool and enhance market momentum would be welcome.
I want to encourage others to join me in making the Manhattan luxury housing market free of bias. There are surely examples of discrimination that the brokerage community has witnessed, and bringing these to light could be the start of addressing positive change.
There are more opportunities than ever for leaders of organizations to address unconscious bias, which will surely have a powerful and positive impact on the conversations happening around kitchen tables and on the streets in cities across America. It is time to take an honest and open look at how we can create stronger, more diverse communities within New York’s residential buildings as well.
-Scott Harris, Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker at Brown Harris Stevens