Black condo board members, the housing discrimination continues
Be prepared for ‘we don’t work there’ emails and anonymous rants
When I logged into Yelp and saw a new message from a roofer who I chose not to re-hire, all I could do was shake my head. Almost a year later and never giving this man a second thought, I see the following message:
This contractor would not stop texting me on a Saturday night on the Fourth of July. (Yes, I celebrate Juneteeth instead of Independence Day, but that’s not the point.) I asked him repeatedly to stop, only for him to keep going, damn near begging me to do the job. Our condo board ended up working with someone else. Judging from this “Black Lives Matter” rant (although I’d never mentioned BLM in a conversation with him and only confirmed it via face mask), I’m pretty relieved I gave a firm “no” on a second round of work.
If this message above seems surprising to you, don’t let it. This is a sadly common thing that may happen with a “certain” group of contractors and black homeowners. Whether you’re a condo board member (I was the president last year and treasurer now), a homeowner or landlord, it’s pretty easy to catch on to the “tone” of some contractor conversations. In this particular contractor’s case, I had a hunch but wasn’t quite sure. At the time, my focus was on handling business though.
While talking about roof repairs and inspections, I raised an eyebrow at some of his pricing and suggested upgrades. Initially I just thought he was sketchy, primarily due to seeing his cell phone number connected to multiple “roof repair companies” (on Yelp, the Better Business Bureau and Google) but a Zelle account under a completely different name and email address. I tried to shrug it off at first, but the fact-checking editor in me wouldn’t let it go. At least six “companies” later, I knew I was talking to a scammer. But I was more insulted that he seemed to think I knew nothing about home improvement or property management. Double disrespect.
While this is a unique case, black board members will see this questionable behavior in other ways — it’s the contractor who is “unavailable” all of a sudden. He has no problem talking to your other board members, but he always seems “too busy” to talk to you.
Case and point, when doing price comparisons on snow removal companies recently, a suburban contractor caught my attention. When he immediately rejected the job because it was under a specific number of inches of snow, I still gave it a shot with his snow-length preferences. Then emails were unanswered — two of them.
In my final request, the same person who advertised himself as an owner who “has built a great reputation working with homeowners, property managers and municipalities” suddenly “doesn’t work with HOAs” and now only works with “large commercial properties.” Now either he doesn’t know what the “h” stands for in an HOA, or he also conveniently missed the HOA affiliation in my email address and the name of the company. Funny how that works. Meanwhile wording about homeowners and landscaping non-commercial homes are still largely prominent on his Yelp page.
What to do when you suspect contractor discrimination
My motto as a renter, board member and/or condo owner has always been the same: “I’m not about to beg you to pay you.” If a contractor becomes too much of a hassle to deal with — and keep in mind that they may be getting a laundry list of calls and emails, so be reasonably patient — know that there are always competitors.
Don’t beg to pay for someone else’s work
Never get so hung up on proving that someone is discriminating against you that you forget to pay attention to the competitors who would love your business and your money. If you put all of your energy into pointing fingers at discriminatory companies, sure, you may air them out. But that’s what mystery shoppers and reporters are for. While investigating this behavior can be draining and counterproductive to your larger goal, keep in mind that you still need your own home improvement work done. Prioritize.
Leave a public review of their behavior
If you’re sure you’re write about your suspicions, or you get a message that makes it blatantly obvious (such as the one above), rate the company and move on. Prejudice people and racist people must show their true colors; they just cannot help themselves. It’s the equivalent of asking a child to go into a toy store and not to touch anything. Expect fingerprints to be everywhere.
Hire the company that deserves you, then spread the word
Hire a company better suited to work with you, who is also someone who is good at the job. Always review them on the usual sites such as Yelp and Google Reviews. (Angie’s List used to be a good one until they started requiring users to pay. I logged out immediately.) As busy as you may be, if you know a company has done a great job — especially ones who embrace diversity and multiculturalism — I highly recommend giving them a testimonial (whether written or video). Why? There will always be other people of color who want to invest in companies that will work with them. Seeing your melanin-rich face in photos, videos or statements says to potential customers, “There’s potential here.”
While there will be homeowners, property managers and condo board members who will shy away from this idea unless they make some kind of financial profit, good customer service, reasonable deals and quality work are an even exchange for me. Additionally, smart business owners want repeat business anyway. They usually end up offering condo boards a promo code or discount for recommending other clients to them. Word of mouth is the best salesperson.
In fact, a plumber I used for a one-time job ended up being hired to remodel my parents’ entire bathroom. (I don’t even recognize my childhood bathroom anymore. I thought the “after” photos from the before-and-after were a mistake.) By them working so well with me and giving my parents the same treatment, I then moved on to recommending them over and over again to other homeowners, both on and off my board.
The company owner (white guy) has a diverse plumbing staff and grew up in a diverse neighborhood. (We had a chat.) More often than not, a company with a multicultural staff already knows how to interact with different races and cultures anyway. But if you’re looking at an “About Us” page with only one group, don’t be surprised when you get the runaround.
Don’t assume all skinfolk means best work
This is probably the toughest one to add, but it’s true. Whether you’re hiring a company for a condo board or yourself, do not assume because you all share the same skin that this will be glorious customer service and quality work. Can it happen? Absolutely. But I’ve also experienced black-owned businesses who had a “we’ll get around to it” energy and just assumed subpar customer service was acceptable. While I’m not convinced non-black people got the same “meh” attitude, I could be wrong. Regardless, whatever contract you signed and whatever verbal agreement you made still stands.
As a freelancer, I know that my reputation is what continues to get me hired. So if I screw up a bunch of jobs with onetime clients and/or regular clients, that’s money out of my pocket. I have worked with clients all across the globe, from West Africa to New Zealand to the United Kingdom to Indianapolis and Miami. Everybody gets treated the same. I have even turned down a couple of contracts from people who I could clearly tell were trying to hire me because I’m black versus being qualified, as well as companies who wanted me to lower my rates “because we’re black.” No. The rate is the rate. The service is the service. And if I don’t know how to do the job, I am not about to make your company look bad. Working with housing contractors should be the same.
While I prefer to work with companies that are more diverse and definitely do not hesitate to reach out to black-owned businesses, I want the same level of quality work from them as I put out. I’m a huge fan of recycling black dollars, but I’m also a fan of getting the work I paid for.
No matter who you choose, it’s all going to be a gamble until you see the work. Some companies put on a great professional face and become Casper the (Un)Friendly Ghost when the work starts. Others may have customer service issues or contractual issues or attendance issues. You just never know. But the one thing you can know ahead of time is if people give you a discriminatory vibe in the beginning, expect that to continue. If you ever get the feeling that a contractor is treating your money like it’s not worth it, confirm their opinion. Let them know they’re not worth it and hire someone else.