Prejudice Matters

We live in an increasingly polarized country. Our Presidential campaign this year has taken on a profoundly adversarial tone, with one of the major candidates pitting one group of Americans against another based on issues of ethnicity, religion, and sexual identity. In New York, the epicenter of the glorious melting pot which represents what I hope is the real America, we have among the most stringent fair housing rules in the country. Although some manifestations of these rules are a little silly, like the prohibition on the use of the word “family” in marketing lest people who do not have families might feel discriminated against, the fundamental purpose remains admirable. In my own way, I have spent my career trying to assure that qualified candidates get the home they want.

When I entered the business in 1980, different buildings were known to discriminate in different ways. One highly regarded co-op had an unspoken status quo rule: Jews could sell to Jews but non-Jews could not sell to Jews. Single women were widely seen as difficult Board candidates, as one never knew whom they might marry. Young couples seemed likely to give loud parties. Unmarried couples…forget it! Little by little, things began to change. One prominent Park Avenue building was on the losing end of a lawsuit initiated by a highly qualified single woman who had been turned down by the Board. It became increasingly difficult for buildings to openly display anti-Semitism. But even as conditions evolved, brokers remained the gatekeepers of some of the old ways. Sometimes excessively anxious about the possibility of Board rejections, some top agents would not entertain candidates whom they felt might be unsuitable. Discrimination, still prevalent, went more underground.

For me and for my firm, it has always been a point of pride to push back against those fear-driven decisions. I have always wanted Warburg agents to be transaction enablers, not gatekeepers maintaining the status quo. It is of course our obligation, when we represent sellers, to find them the most qualified candidate. But that fact should never stand in the way of our advocating for the buyer who may be breaking down a barrier. I have been proud to represent people of color, unmarried couples, gay couples, single buyers, and to advocate aggressively for all of them as appropriate co-op buyers. Over the years this led to some big arguments, but never was one of these extremely qualified buyers rejected by a Board! Although many co-op Boards do not understand that they, like any landlord, are subject to the fair housing laws of the city, and although over the years we have seen and heard some appalling things (the nadir was the Board member who asked an applicant: “Are you the kind of Jew who has to walk upstairs on Saturdays?”) that only increases our resolve as a firm to be leading edge of the wedge against discrimination when we see it.

This past week-end New Yorkers experienced a terrible but mercifully not fatal attack on our safety. I can only echo what many others have said: the greatest victory any terrorist group can achieve sees us giving in to fear and compromising our ideals in the process. Every person of good will, regardless of where they come from or the circumstances driving them, should have the right to a life free from fear, just as every applicant of good character and financial standing should be welcomed into the building in which they hope to dwell. Anything less compromises our profession, our city, and our fraternity and sorority in the American enterprise.