Rochester-area Realtors group aims to boost Black homeownership
Tysharda Thomas jokes that she got into real estate because of her husband.
Christopher Thomas had bought and flipped a few houses over the years, but in some of the properties he encountered electrical problems, plumbing issues, and other complications. That would change over time as he learned from experience. In those cases, however, someone likely knew about the problems but didn’t explain them to her husband.
“There was no one looking out for him,” Thomas said.
Thomas, a Realtor since 2008, is now looking out for homebuyers. She and her husband own New 2 U Homes and one of Thomas’s passions is helping first-time homebuyers navigate the process.
But the full-service brokerage, which primarily represents buyers, fills another niche. The Thomases are Black, as are roughly 90% of their customers, Thomas said.
“People are comfortable with people who have been through some the experiences that they've been in, people who look like them," Thomas said.
“People are comfortable with people who have been through some the experiences that they've been in, people who look like them."
Thomas is co-leader of the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors’ new Black Caucus, a title she shares with Robin Wilt, a fellow Realtor and member of the Brighton Town Board. The caucus formed to provide Black real estate agents at all stages of their careers with support and guidance, but also to boost Black and Latino homeownership, which lags behind that of white and Asian people.
Last month, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, which refers to itself as the oldest minority real estate trade association in the United States, issued a report on the state of housing in Black America. The report noted that the Black homeownership rate is higher than it was a century ago, when redlining and racial covenants in deeds barred Black people from living in certain communities. But it also stated that nationwide, fewer than 45% of Black households own their home, compared with 75% of white households.
“Blacks have made little, if any, strides at closing the disparate homeownership gap between those of our white counterparts,” Lydia Pope, the association’s president, wrote in the report. “Systemic discriminatory regulations and policies continue to thwart any meaningful effort at closing the homeownership gap.”
In 2020, roughly 35% of Black loan applicants were turned down by lenders compared to 23% of white applicants, according to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. Of the almost 450,000 applications submitted by would-be Black borrowers in 2020, just under 300,000 were approved.
The report also pointed to problems such as flawed credit score models and higher mortgage pricing “that penalize Blacks for the forced economic deprivation they’ve experienced.”
The nine-county Rochester region almost mirrors the national picture.
Of white households, 75% own their homes, a figure that falls to 55% among Asians, 35% among Latinos, and 32% among Blacks, according to data compiled by ACT Rochester, a Rochester Area Community Foundation initiative.
“Since the Fair Housing Act of 1968, we have not come that far,” Thomas said. “When you look at the numbers in Rochester, we do not own a lot, we rent, and we want to change that.”
It wasn’t the basketball court or the in-ground pool that led Tyrees Cray, 38, to buy her gray, two-story, four-bedroom house in a Gates cul-de-sac this past February. It was the practical stuff: the two-car garage, the first-floor laundry room, the fireplace, and the clear line of sight from the kitchen to the television — the configuration is great for entertaining, noted Cray.
She was also swayed by the space between bedrooms. At her previous apartment, her youngest son’s room was right next to hers and loud sounds, such as the ruckus of video games, bled through the walls. In her new home, her son’s bedroom is down the hall.
“It's just really a great home for a first-time person with the things that I was looking for,” Cray said. “The pool and the basketball court were pluses and my son was excited, but they weren't on my list. It's just a really great home in a great neighborhood."
Cray is Black, and when she began the homebuying process, she sought out an experienced Black agent. She said she wanted someone seasoned because it was her first time buying a house and she had a lot of questions. She wanted a Black agent because of shared experience and knew of New 2 U Homes from a friend who bought a home through the agency.
Before Cray started looking for houses last year, she had talked to her grandparents and her father about the decision and they had warned her that it might be hard for her to buy. She had a blemish on her credit score that she said arose from helping out a friend in the past.
A Black agent, she reasoned, would likely have a much better grasp on potential obstacles and ideas on how to overcome them. Thomas walked her through the process, from fixing her credit to what to look for as she viewed houses. When they visited the house Cray bought, both knew it was the one.
“She was there all along the way,” Cray said of Thomas.
DEVELOPING REAL ESTATE AGENTS
Historically, the real estate industry played a major role in segregating communities across the United States. New Deal-era home lending programs and the federally-sanctioned redlining that followed provided the means.
In the 1950s, as a wave of Black migrants moved to Rochester from the south, the industry and banks steered them into two of the city’s old wards, areas we now know as Corn Hill and the Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood.
The late Black journalist Howard Coles, who published the Frederick Douglass Voice newspaper for 60 years, dedicated many pages to calls for better housing conditions in the city and an end to homebuyer discrimination. He also worked as a real estate agent for a time, and in 1960 resigned from the Rochester Housing Commission in protest of the protocols Black real estate agents had to follow when showing houses — like limiting showings to nights and evenings.
The Black Caucus aims to build on that legacy in part by teaching real estate professionals about the current and historic barriers to home ownership for Black people. On Nov. 9, co-leader Wilt served on a panel convened by PathStone, a nonprofit community development organization, that discussed the devaluation of Black homes.
Thomas figures she talks with four or five people a month who are interested in entering the real estate profession and says acts as sort of a mentor to them. She’ll walk them through the process of getting their real estate licenses and discuss the importance of cultivating relationships with banks and other businesses.
The caucus, she hopes, will provide Black real estate professionals with the means to overcome or cope with some of the difficulties they’ll encounter, which could include seller discrimination or persistent, harmful stereotypes about the work ethic of Black people.
“It’s still one of those things where we always have to do better,” Thomas said. “Even if we’re doing the exact same job, we still have to prove ourselves.”