Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Co-Operative Housing

Katheryn DeClerck | December 13, 2022

Co-operative housing corporations (co-ops) have long held that the success and financial viability of their community are dependent on the shared goals and attitudes of the residents (shareholders). On its appearance, that makes sense. But what is essential for “success?”

A simple Googling of the “definition of community” returned the following results:

“A common definition of community emerged as a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings.”

“A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

“The people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group.”

There were dozens of such examples, but you get the picture.

What makes less sense is that some co-op boards extend the concept of community to include likeness not just in goals for their shared housing, but in other characteristics that are frankly non-essential to their success. These characteristics just might be one’s inclusion in a protected class.

Let’s not confuse Fair Housing and DEI. Fair Housing relates to discrimination and is regulated, mandated and ethically well-defined. An example of discrimination would be refusing a buyer who is a young single Hispanic female or requiring that person to meet higher financial standards than other applicants who are not members of those protected classes. It could also include denying a buyer who needs a reasonable modification or accommodation due to a disability that limits a major life function.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), on the other hand, goes further to consider people’s feelings, experiences and participation. This could be evident when people are not “welcomed.” There can be behaviors that don’t rise to the level of discrimination, but discourage buyers because they don’t feel comfortable, especially where community is considered essential to those who live in a co-op.

Our region’s co-ops are often the most affordable option for first-time and other homebuyers. They also offer owners the same tax benefits as other types of real estate, even though a co-op owner is really buying shares. And yet, it is not uncommon to have buyers reluctant to buy a co-op.

Co-op boards can declare that they don’t discriminate regarding who lives in their community, but how buyers FEEL about potentially living there is a legacy that they should address. Are buyers opting out of their perfect home because, historically, that building “hasn’t really wanted children” or because buyers are reluctant to be subjected to an interview about their lifestyle, dating habits or other personal information?

It has been a long haul, but after decades of advocacy we have obtained co-op transparency legislation (in Westchester and Rockland counties) that requires boards to give a reason for declining an applicant. Eliminating the secrecy that has protected co-ops for so long will make it possible to identify if someone was the victim of discrimination, and it is an important first step for Fair Housing. But how do you welcome people into the community so this doesn’t happen in the first place? The paradigm shift needed is to de-couple “likeness” from “community” and ultimately create financial success through diversity.

If co-op boards and residents worked to create a welcoming reputation where new owners were extended the opportunity to be involved and heard, it would go a long way to increasing the value of their stock (so to speak) and creating what they, by definition, want—community.

As Realtors and co-op residents, we can play an active role in changing the attitudes within a co-op by sharing the benefits of embracing DEI and holding our organizations to a higher standard. Change starts at home and begins with each of us.

For additional resources from the DEI Committee and NAR, visit: https://www.hgar.com/about-us/diversity-equity-inclusion and https://www.nar.realtor/diversity/diversity-equity-inclusion-resources.

Katheryn DeClerck
Katheryn DeClerck is a member of the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors DEI Steering Committee.