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June 09, 2023 Practice Points

Diversity in the Dirt: DEI Challenges in Real Estate

Diverse participants in the real estate industry can take advantage of this moment to overcome some of the challenges to full participation.

By Julia Emfinger

Real estate, like many industries, faces significant challenges when it comes to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Historically, participants in the business of real estate have been straight, cisgender, white men. This real estate participant trope has systemic roots, for example, because of years of legal and permissible restrictions on the ability of women and people of color to own real estate or secure financing. However, at its heart, real estate is a business, and in that regard, lends itself to meritocratic trends. Given the current interest in advancing DEI across all sectors, diverse participants can take advantage of this moment to overcome some of the challenges to full participation in the real estate industry.

With the above in mind, on February 23, 2023, the ABA’s Real Estate, Condemnation, and Trust Committee, a subsection of the Litigation Section, hosted a virtual roundtable co-moderated by Julia Emfinger and LaFonda Willis, who discussed diversity in the real estate industry with panelists Jodi Borges-Bradley (IA Interior Architects), Rod Mullice (Windsor Stevens Holdings), Rosemary Swierk (Direct Steel LLC), and Maribel N. Nicholson-Choice (Greenberg Traurig, LLP). They discussed DEI issues in the real estate industry and gave the following insight and advice.

Challenges and Advice

The panelists all acknowledged the challenges they have personally faced in the real estate sector, but all have achieved success in their fields. For individuals who identify as diverse, the panelists recommended finding a focus area in which to become an expert. In the panelists’ experiences, being an indispensable resource or excelling in a particular niche topic is such a valuable commodity that it transcends any conscious or unconscious bias. They also advised seeking out meaningful similarities in all business contacts, and not assuming that characteristics like age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation would preclude the potential for connection. The panelists all noted that some of their most useful contacts were individuals who did not identify as diverse, or identified differently, and that commonalities in other respects formed the basis for supportive and collaborative relationships. Finally, the panelists noted that real estate projects often involve cooperation with and support from governmental entities, which tend to employ more diverse individuals than in the private sector or have public policy interests which favor supporting the success of diverse individuals. The panelists advised that a diverse identity could be used as an asset when interfacing with governmental entities.

How Non-Diverse Participants Can Support Diversity

For non-diverse participants in the real estate industry who are interested in supporting diverse individuals and promoting their success, the panelists emphasized the importance of mentorship and inviting participation at all levels. Making a concerted effort to mentor diverse participants inevitably increases diverse participation. Further, ensuring that diverse individuals are at the table, and are afforded the opportunity to have a voice there, is essential to full participation by diverse individuals.

This frank and energetic discussion celebrated the accomplishments of the diverse panelists, and provided a useful roadmap to success for other diverse professionals.

Julia Emfinger is a shareholder with Greenberg Traurig, LLP, in Chicago, Illinois.

Copyright © 2023, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Litigation Section, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).