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Front Page - Friday, February 11, 2022

Realtists work to rid industry of inequities

Group advocates for Black Realtors, buyers, sellers

Jai Williams and Sabrina Hagood are proud to be Realtors in Chattanooga. As members of the largest trade group in the nation, they adhere to a rigorous Code of Ethics as they serve homebuyers and sellers across the city.

But that is not where their story ends.

Williams and Hagood are also Realtists, a designation reserved for members of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, which the women describe as the largest Black trade organization in the nation.

Although NAREB will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2022, Williams and Hagood say they sometimes receive quizzical looks when they mention the organization.

“Most people have never heard of NAREB,” says Williams, an agent with Keller Williams Realty Greater Chattanooga and an independent mortgage consultant. “But we’ve been around for several decades.”

The disparity between the number of white and Black Realtors in the U.S. could be contributing to why so few people – including real estate agents – have heard of the organization.

The National Association of Realtors’ 2017 profile of its membership shows 7% of its agents are Black.

But the impact of NAREB runs deep in the lives of Black homeowners, says Hagood, also an agent with KW Realty Greater Chattanooga.

“I live in Ooltewah, and Jai lives in East Brainerd. These are beautiful communities. We live where we live because of NAREB, which was at the forefront of the Fair Housing Act.”

Passed in 1968, the Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for landlords, brokers and banks to make housing unavailable to someone because of their race or color, among other characteristics. It exists, Williams says, because there was a time when such discrimination was not illegal.

There was also a time when Black real estate agents were not allowed to join the national association, now called the NAR. This led a group of 12 Black real estate agents to Tampa, Florida, in 1947, where they formed NAREB, an equal opportunity and civil rights advocacy group tasked with enhancing the economic standing of its members and the broader Black community.

In the years that followed, NAREB helped to craft and pass major legislation at the local, state and federal levels.

These policy achievements include the first local fair housing legislation in 1962 in New York City, the first state fair housing legislation in 1963 in California, the creation of HUD in 1964 and establishing affordable housing goals for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 1992.

NAREB’s mission continues, says Williams, adding the recent work the organization did to help reduce the percentage of deferred student loan debt that can be applied to the liabilities of an FHA or Fannie Mae applicant.

“The previous levels were knocking people out of the ability to close on a home,” Williams adds.

Williams and Hagood brought NAREB to Chattanooga with the launch of a local chapter last year. After receiving a provisional charter April 1 and being inducted nationally at NAREB’s national conference July 27 in Cleveland, Ohio, NAREB Chattanooga joined 93 other chapters across the nation in promoting fair access to home ownership – or, as Hagood says, “ensuring democracy in housing.”

“When people hear the word ‘democracy,’ they think we’re political,” Hagood explains. “But democracy in housing means everyone has access to fair housing, which includes access to not only information but also fair lending, fair home inspections and fair appraisals.”

NAREB Chattanooga has its work cut out for it, as Blacks face a number of documented barriers to home ownership nationally, beginning with a wealth gap.

A Feb. 27, 2020, article by The Brookings Institution titled “Examining the Black-white wealth gap” states the net worth of an average white family ($171,000) was nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.

Williams and Hagood say the wealth gap can be largely attributed to the low home ownership rate among Blacks, which hovers close to 44%, compared to a white ownership rate of 74%, according to a March 23, 2021, MarketWatch article titled “Black homeownership rate hits lowest level since the 1960s.”

“That’s a problem,” Haywood says. “A house is an asset. If you don’t have a house, how can you build your net worth?”

“Our community is not taught to think about homeownership,” Williams adds. “We have families that rented the same house for generations. They paid for it over and over. And then investors came in and redeveloped those homes into something they couldn’t afford and they were priced out.”

To change the mindset of Blacks who could own a home but do not, NAREB Chattanooga hosts a homebuyer workshop the last Saturday of every month. These free events cover budgeting, credit repair, the mortgage process and more.

Major lenders such as Truist and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency have made presentations at these events.

Williams says the workshops also cover how someone can preserve their homeownership after they acquire the key to their house.

“What happens if your finances come under fire and you can’t make a mortgage payment?” Williams asks. “Many new homeowners have no clue what they’ll do if they run into a hardship. If you lose your house, then you lose the wealth you were building.”

While Williams and Hagood both say redlining is no longer an issue in Chattanooga, NAREB is fighting this battle elsewhere, including Memphis, where Trustmark National Bank will pay $5 million in fines to federal regulators to settle allegations it avoided offering and marketing home loans to Black and Hispanic customers.

Of greater concern to NAREB Chattanooga is what Williams and Hagood say is the low number of Blacks working in the many professions that serve the local housing industry, including real estate agents, home inspectors and home appraisers, among others.

In addition to the NAR profile that reports Black agents make up 7% of Realtors, a report from the Appraisal Institute notes that at the end of 2018, 85% of appraisers nationwide were white, while less than 2% were Black.

The impact of this racial and ethnic divide can be seen in Freddie Mac’s recently released analysis of more than 12 million appraisals between 2015 and 2020, which notes that 7.4% of appraisals in largely white census tracts came in below a property’s contract price, while that figure jumped to 12.5% in Black areas.

“An appraisal falling below the contracted sale price ... could mean the family misses out on the full wealth-building benefits of homeownership, or might be unable to get the financing they need to achieve the American dream in the first place,” Michael Bradley, a senior vice president at Freddie Mac, tells NPR in a Sept. 23, 2021, article titled “ Black and Latino homeowners are about twice as likely as whites to get low appraisals.”

Increasing the number of Black real estate professionals could help boost Black homeownership, says The Philadelphia Enquirer in an April 10, 2021, article.

“Real estate still requires ... a personal touch,” Antoine Thompson, a former director of the NAREB, says in the piece. “There’s a trust gap in real estate for a lot of reasons, so we need good, qualified, trained people that can help African Americans to become homeowners.”

NAREB Chattanooga is responding to Thompson’s clarion call through several outreach efforts. One includes encouraging local high school students to consider becoming a real estate agent, home inspector, home appraiser or mortgage lender.

“Many young people don’t understand which opportunities are available to them,” Williams points out. “I’ve talked with some who thought they had to have a college degree to be a home appraiser or that it would cost a lot of money to earn a license.

“We need to go into the local schools and say, ‘Here are some lucrative professions that don’t require a college degree.’ Their minds are open and they’re ready to go.”

Brent Rainey, a Black loan officer with HomeRate Mortgage, says he joined NAREB Chattanooga partly out of a desire to participate in these outreach events.

“I wish someone from NAREB had been at the job fairs I attended in high school and college. I would have saved myself a lot of time and debt.

“I joined NAREB so I can be there on career day at East Hamilton High School and Brainerd High School and tell the kids, ‘Here’s a path you can take. We’ll mentor you. You won’t have to go in raw like we did.”

Williams can trace the birth of NAREB Chattanooga back to a conversation she had with Lydia Smith, mortgage committee chair for NAREB. Smith had called Williams to discuss a referral and the two wound up talking about NAREB.

“I knew about NAREB from when I lived and worked in Maryland. But I never joined the organization because I thought I didn’t need to. I knew what my mission was and I didn’t need NAREB telling me what it should be.”

In addition to serving as a licensed real estate agent and a mortgage consultant, Williams is a real estate investor. When she moved her license from another Chattanooga brokerage to Keller Williams, the leadership there connected her with Hagood, who also has a history of investing.

Although Williams sidestepped NAREB while living in Maryland, Smith convinced her to become the founding president of the Chattanooga chapter. Williams then asked Hagood to join her in the endeavor.

“She told me, ‘Wherever we’re going, we’re going together,’ Williams says. “We’ve been attached at the hips ever since.”

With Williams at the helm, NAREB Chattanooga has a president who’s not adverse to getting into the weeds to safeguard the community the organization serves. This can be luminously evident in the vetting Williams does before allowing a business to join NAREB’s ranks.

While any business or individual whose work touches real estate can join NAREB (the Chattanooga chapter counts five lenders and a financial planner among its ranks), membership resides on the other side of a conversation with Williams.

“I’ve been in the industry for a long time and can smell BS,” Williams says. “With lenders, I know most of the programs inside and out, and will want to know how much you know and how you plan to benefit our community. I’ll be able to tell if you’re just fishing for business.”

Williams say she’s turned down credit repair businesses for this very reason.

“One, if you’re not registered with the State of Tennessee, we don’t need to have a conversation; two, if you’re not bonded, we don’t need to have a conversation; and three, if you’re part of a marketing network, we don’t need to have a conversation because that’s not going to help the community. You’ll just be giving them an empty promise and taking their money.”

(Williams says she’ll guide an individual through the credit repair process for free, so there’s no need to use a service that charges a fee – especially monthly.)

While Williams might be the support beam at the center of NAREB, she’s not alone in pursuing its mission. In addition to her and Hagood, who’s acting as president-elect, four other Realtists serve on the board of NAREB. All told, the local chapter is 34 members strong.

“A lot of people are taking a wait-and-see approach because we’re new,” Williams says. “But Sabrina said bigger things are about to happen.”

NAREB Chattanooga will take a step toward a larger vision when representatives meet with the office of Mayor Tim Kelly this month to express their desire to assist with his initiatives in Chattanooga.

That won’t be where their story ends, though.

“NAREB is putting us in seats we never thought we’d be in,” Hagood adds. “This is an exciting time to join.”

“I’m excited to have been afforded the opportunity to start this organization and proud of the work we’re putting in,” Williams says. “There’s a lot more to do, especially in our area, but in 25 years, I predict we’ll be even prouder.”