'It’s Sort Of Disheartening': Despite Progress, LGBTQIA+ Community In CRE Still Facing Hurdles
More people than ever before identify as LGBTQIA+ in the U.S., and in spite of some societal progress and stated goals by major corporations to be more inclusive in hiring, promoting and acknowledging members of diverse groups, many real estate professionals in the LGBTQIA+ community feel that these efforts have left them behind.
A Gallup poll this year found that 7.1% of adults identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, double the figure the organization found when it first conducted the survey a decade ago.
And while the CRE industry has touted its diversity initiatives, Enterprise Community found that only 1.5% of real estate assets are under management from minority-led firms. Data tracking on LGBTQIA+-led firms is comparably nonexistent.
And members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have broken into CRE find that the industry still has a lot of hurdles to overcome.
“It’s a topic I’m pretty passionate about. You would think that, fast-forward from 15 years ago, it sounds like we’ve made a lot of progress, just having this panel and talking about these issues … it feels like progress. But when you look at the numbers, it’s sort of disheartening,” Rainbow Capital Partners Managing Partner Ryo Ishida said during a virtual panel titled Breaking the Lavender Ceiling, hosted by the Lesbian & Gay Real Estate Group.
Ishida also serves as the co-president for LGREG’s San Francisco arm. His firm pursues opportunities with an LGBTQIA+ focus and deals with investors who don’t always understand that the firm’s socially conscious goals aren’t at odds with making money.
“One of the first questions we always get asked is, ‘Are your returns concessionary?’ And Christopher Rice-Shepherd hinted at this, but there’s subtle prejudice in that question alone. For us, on the return side, we think it’s quite the opposite.”
“The common denominator of the projects we fund and the folks running them ... yes they happen to be minority, female or LGBTQ+, but at the end of the day, at the core, they’re really opportunists and they’re capitalists,” he said.
Ishida said that one of the other common elements making these projects profitable is that often they will seek out markets with limited competition, with investors seeing opportunity in under-the-radar markets like Baltimore or East Los Angeles.
“And again, the common denominator is that they are capitalists, the other common denominator, like all of the folks on this panel, they probably have a chip on their shoulder, and we will go where the market isn't going,” he said.
The overall question of diversity initiatives is coming up more frequently with investors, CBRE Chief Investment Officer for Americas Direct Real Estate Strategies Kimberly Hourihan said.
“We tend to invest directly, but it comes up with our investors for sure,” Hourihan said.
“Part of their due diligence is, 'What percentage of your workforce are women or minorities; do you have a policy about using vendors that are minorities?' It’s come up more and more every year,” Hourihan said. “Which it just helps. It means we have to be aware of it, because they are aware of it. It’s a good thing, and it’s coming up more and more.”
But, as it relates to environmental, social and governance initiatives, the focus is often more on visible diversity, and less on LGBTQIA+ issues, Hourihan said.
“In my experience, it is 100% visible. I cannot recall a time it has ever come up,” she said.
Diversity initiatives need to be more inclusive, beyond just race or sex, because not only is it the right thing to do, it’s ultimately a boon to capital, Related Fund Management Global Head of Capital Raising, Business Development and Investor Relations Christopher Rice-Shepherd said.
“Diversity can mean a lot of things. In most profiteering businesses, evidence shows diversity helps the bottom line. It’s not just color, it’s not just sex,” Rice-Shepherd said. “LGBTQ should be included. Like Kim said, I can’t think of a time where it has been. The consulting firms always ask, and I’ve never had a question about LGBTQ diversity.”
Meanwhile, although perceptions have changed, panelists said discrimination across racial and sexual orientation has gotten a lot more backhanded as attitudes about open discrimination have shifted.
“It’s a hot mess. I come out as Black when I walk into the room,” Rice-Shepherd said. “I went to Stanford, undergrad, and if someone in the room knows that, I am typically asked ‘Did you get a sports scholarship?’ and that question, to me, is kind of offensive.”
“Their stereotypes there are just as strong, and then when they I found out I’m gay, minds are blown, and other conversations happen.”
“It doesn’t show up like it used to. No one has ever said to me ‘you are gay Asian male, so we aren’t going to promote you or fund you.’ Prejudice is a lot more subtle,” Ishida said.
“Being an Asian male in real estate, oftentimes I get, if there’s a quick math problem, ‘Ryo, you can solve that in your head right?’ and it’s sort of those subtle comments. And in particular, I think prejudice now shows up in your network effect,” he said.
He said he asks, “‘When was the last time a Black developer or Asian or female pitched you on a deal?’ And that question is often met with silence. Which tells me that prejudice shows up in the network of deals we are funding.”
Location is also becoming a much bigger factor when it comes to feeling safe when conducting business, Rice-Shepherd said.
“In other parts of the country, I have other issues, being Black and or gay — where I am dictates which one is the bigger problem. Generally, in the workplace, circles in CRE, people are well-traveled, they know how to handle it. If they are not comfortable, they know it’s not cool to appear not comfortable,” he said.
However, the feeling of safety can change a great deal when LGBTQIA+ CRE professionals cross state lines.
“I hate to say it, but I have a lot of discomfort in certain places. If someone reveals a certain attitude, it does make it harder to do business with them,” Rice-Shepherd said. “The reason I hyphenated my last name is my children. My children are White. I’m from the South. And when we adopted them, there were some concerns about what might happen if I got pulled over, or on a plane with them, when I travel with these kids. I have to prove quickly that they belong to me.”
As of March 2022, there were 238 bills proposed by state lawmakers limiting the rights of LGBTQIA+ Americans, with half of them targeting transgender people, according to NBC News. Since 2018, nearly 670 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in various states.
For LGBTQIA+ members of the CRE community, especially in CRE hotbeds like Texas and Florida, both states which have increasingly proposed or implemented restrictive legislation for LGBTQIA+ people, the cost of doing business isn’t always worth the risk.
“Coming from five years ago, the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation is unbelievable. I feel like there are these working groups in a lot of states trying to figure out ways to make our lives miserable, to make our children’s lives more traumatic,” RealtyMogul Chief Investment Officer and LGREG founder Chris Fraley said. “There’s been a pretty massive backwards shift as far as I can see, in a pretty large swath of the country, sadly.”
Panelists were still, however, optimistic about the progress that has been made across the industry, noting that when it comes to managing their professional and personal lives, it’s better to be authentic to create stronger relationships among colleagues — though testing the waters of potential attitudes can start as early as the interview process.
“When I am interviewing someone — I do a lot of interviewing — and it’s really critical that anyone we are hiring is comfortable with a diverse environment. I’ll try to slip in 'Oh, you went to UVA? Oh, my husband went to UVA!' and I will try to watch their face, to see if anything changes when I mention it, to see if there is any emotional reaction,” Fraley said.
“I try to keep it really casual, and not really make it a big deal about it.”
And after the interview process, when chatting casually with co-workers, the panelists said the ability to speak honestly about their lives outside of the office is important for forging bonds with their co-workers.
“I keep my social life separate, but not necessarily stories about my life. People want to hear stories, that’s how you connect with people,” Hourihan said.
“I think that question: ‘How was your weekend?’ has really evolved,” Ishida said. “Even beyond LGBTQ+ issues, people are more mixing personal and professional lives. I was told by mentors to keep my personal and professional lives separate probably 10 years ago.”
“Again, to Kim’s point, as basic as it sounds, bringing your authentic self to work, in my opinion, creates stronger bonds.”
There’s also an element of declaration in speaking honestly about home life, according to Rice-Shepherd, which is important for shifting the way the industry, and society in general, think about and treat members of the LGBTQIA+ community and other diverse people.
“The color of skin, your sexual orientation … there is a large swath of the country, and of corporate America that is still uncomfortable. You do have to speak up, and kind of … make people uncomfortable," Rice-Shepherd said. "When I was in Dallas, I tried to wear pink shirts more often, you know? I don’t know. Just to say you are here, and you are not going to crawl away and put yourself under a rock.” .