Be a Diversity Leader

To practice fair housing requires a deeper understanding of all cultures.

April 1, 2009

To meet the spirit of fair housing law requires a deeper understanding of all cultures.

The word "diversity" is ubiquitous today, and the concept is widely embraced. Our markets are more multicultural than ever, with immigrants and minorities making up a fast-growing share of households. Minority homeownership is on the rise too: In 2007, 51 percent of all minorities owned their home, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies—up from 46 percent a decade earlier.

The real estate profession also is becoming more diverse. Thirteen percent of all REALTORS® are nonwhite, and the percentage is higher—19 percent—for those who entered the business in the past two years, according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® 2008 Member Profile.

Yet, because of our progress it can be easy to forget that in the not too distant past there were actually laws prohibiting people of a certain skin color, national origin, or even marital status from buying real estate. Even after such laws were banished, unscrupulous practices by dodgy real estate professionals and lenders often stood in the way of the American dream for many people.

Since the passage of the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968, federal laws have gone a long way to protect the rights of Americans to own or rent housing. And although these laws are effective at telling us what not to do toward minorities and other protected classes, they don’t tell us what we need to do to work effectively with diverse clients and ensure a truly fair and equal real estate market.

With minority homeownership still lagging the national average, it’s clear there’s more work to be done. You can make a difference by educating yourself and your community and by being a resource to the culturally diverse customers in your market.

I acquired the Certified International Property Specialist designation a few years ago and subsequently completed NAR’s "At Home With Diversity" course. These programs gave me a head start in understanding cultures from all over the world. Earning the CIPS designation also helped me connect to an international referral network and reach out to other cultures on a business level.

This education has been invaluable, but I realized that in order to benefit the greater community, I would have to share my knowledge. As an immigrant from Hong Kong and a naturalized U.S. citizen, I’ve done many things to help my community learn about Chinese culture. For example, I teach an after-school program called "Fun With Chinese Culture" to elementary school kids.

Make yourself a cultural diversity leader in your community. Volunteer to organize cultural events—dancing, singing, or storytelling. Offer to do a cultural cooking demonstration for a school fundraiser or get a few parents together to run an after-school cultural program. Attend meetings and events at various cultural organizations and serve on their boards. Reach out to neighbors and friends and learn about their cultures. Only when we understand and accept other cultures will we truly be free of prejudice and the stereotypes we too often assign to people who appear different from ourselves.

Higher rates of immigration mean that our cities and towns are becoming more diverse every day. As real estate practitioners, we need to embrace that movement to grow our businesses and better our communities. Let’s start by sharing our cultures and making an effort to learning more about our neighbors.

Writer Ellen Osmundson, CIPS, is a sales associate with Prudential California Realty in Walnut Creek, Calif. She is a former columnist on real estate and culture for Sing Tao Real Estate Guide and the author of American Home Ownership: The Chinese American Dream. She may be reached at 925-939-7460 or Ellen.Osmundson@