I Was A Real Estate Agent In Gentrifying Brooklyn
I got into real estate by accident. It was the fall of 2009, and I’d recently returned home to New York after a year of living the nomadic life, complete with multiple temp jobs, sublets, cat sitting gigs, and a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. I was almost 26, penniless, and painfully aware that it was time to start a real life. With the savings from temp jobs and unjustified optimism that I would soon secure full-time employment, my friends and I rented a four-bedroom apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
Inspired by my recent “House Hunters” addiction, at our lease signing, I asked the real estate agency if they were hiring, and the answer was yes. One interview later, I was given 40 sets of keys to available apartments in the neighborhood and sent off to work. While I knew little about Brooklyn at the time, I was excited about the flexibility and unlimited income potential and unphased by the commission-only pay and complete lack of benefits.
This first real estate gig was with a small family-run shop in Crown Heights, along Franklin Avenue. Back in 2009, you could rent a real two-bedroom (and you know what I mean by real — with a separate living room, and a full kitchen) in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights for $1,500–$1,600/month. A one-bedroom or studio could go for $1,000-$1,200/month. Today, the median rate for a two-bedroom is around $2,600 and $1,800–$2,000 for a decent studio. While complaints surrounding gentrification are largely related to demographic shifts, rising rents and commercial business turnover, it’s the changes in interior architecture that trigger many of these issues. While many of the building facades in developing neighborhoods are restored and maintained due to landmarks requirements, these restrictions do not apply to the interior of the apartments, and I watched a tremendous amount of unsettling interior changes take place.
Ground floor apartments along the Franklin Avenue strip were rezoned to house commercial space, so landlords could demand higher rents for retail stores or restaurants. Beautiful pre-war apartments with lovely original wood floors, crown moldings and stone carved fireplaces were chopped into as many little rooms as possible — sometimes five tiny bedrooms into a space where there had been three, by converting the living room into a bedroom and cutting the kitchen in half. Bedrooms that previously fit queen-sized beds comfortably and ran $700-$800 a month became two rooms that could each command $1,000/month. Renters ended up paying more money for less space, which owners would justify by adding “luxury amenities,” such as central air, laundry in the building and modern appliances. It’s true that some renters desire these amenities, but the majority of the clients I worked with all wanted to know where beautiful Brooklyn had gone—and it was just like that: gone.
Still amidst this, I found my first year as an agent to be pretty breezy. I would see apartments, take photos, create ads, post them on Craigslist and wait for my phone to ring. I was allowed to work without a license for the first year (not legally), and I was grateful to save the 75 hours and $400 it would require (I later obtained it when I switched firms). That first agency, where I remained on and off for nearly three and a half years, had over 500 no-fee apartments that all of us agents could work on, and if something became available or went off market, I’d get a text message in real time so I could stay on top of listings. The system was so straightforward and simple that I could get away with working around 25 hours a week, sleep until whenever I wanted, and still close two to three deals a month, bringing home anywhere between $1,500-$3,000 a month before taxes, which was enough, at the beginning. If I didn’t feel like going to work, I didn’t have to. If it was raining, I knew it would be a slow day, all the more reason to stay cozy at home. In my head, if I budgeted for the slower winter months, it would work out. (It never really did.) If I didn’t have rent money mid-way through the month, panic would ensue, but I would always find a way to close a deal and scrape on by.
The day-to-day life of a real estate agent involves very high highs and very low lows. When I would close a deal, I felt euphoric, invincible and capable of great success. Then two, sometimes three weeks would pass before another would close, or a deal would fall through, sometimes triggering a depressive episode. It was kind of like an addiction in this way. I was always chasing after the next deposit—for the next high that would temporarily take my worries away.
When I first became a real estate agent, I dreamed a big dream, encouraged by colleagues who told me that I had what it took to make it. I dreamt of closing big deals and bringing in thousands a month, and of breaking into million dollar sales like the agents on TV. Even though my commissions were never that large, I deluded myself into thinking that if I just hit the grindstone hard enough, if I hustled enough, I could do it. But as the years went by, I struggled to motivate and to hustle full-time the way that was necessary. I found it difficult to schedule myself and structure my day, and often I would end up doing nothing, unsure of what to do first. It became increasingly difficult to tolerate the incessant texting from clients, the phone always ringing, and the fights with Craigslist to get my ads posted in the apt by owner section (the only free advertising option).
Unfortunately, deals can fall through your fingers in an instant, and it happens often. Another agent might close the deal because their application made it to the owner five minutes before yours, but first come first serve procedures are not a sure thing either. An owner might opt to go with an application that came in later but had higher income, or decide they would prefer the couple without the pet. Clients with low or mediocre credit scores would find it very challenging to find an apartment if they could not secure a guarantor or provide extra security up front, even if they are gainfully employed and their credit has been affected for legitimate reasons, such as hospital bills or student loans. It never felt completely right to me to size people up by their credit score and income, but I understand to some degree why the practice is in place. I believe that everyone has a story, a situation, and that a wrecked credit score doesn’t necessarily make for a bad tenant (although sometimes it does). I also understand why landlords would want to protect themselves, especially if they have been burned before.
When I first got started in the business I wanted to help everyone and I showed everyone all the options. Then, one by one, applications would be rejected. I remember one month when four out of seven applications were rejected by landlords. I’d then be told I could “save the deal,” by funneling these clients into other, less competitive apartments in less desirable neighborhoods, owned by more “flexible” landlords. This usually meant heading farther south or east than I felt comfortable with, and/or to a building with some serious issues. My agency (and the others that came afterward) also trained us to ignore Section 8 calls—a program that “provides assistance to eligible low- and moderate-income families to rent housing in the private market”—even giving us a script to use when those calls came in, because none of our owners would accept the program. We were told to lie and say that we had to check with the owner to see whether they would accept the program, and just never call back. It felt terrible and I hated doing it. Above all, it was illegal.
Over time, I learned that unless my “unqualified clients” were white and educated and/or could secure a guarantor whose income met the astronomical requirements, I was, most of the time, out of luck. I watched owners refuse to rent to people of color—a deeply disturbing experience. I had multiple experiences with a Pakistani landlord who refused to rent apartments to people of color or families. I watched as promises by landlords to finish gut renovations on time fell through; in one instance, clients of mine had their move-in date pushed back by two weeks, forcing them to temporarily store their belongings and sleep on couches while they waited to move. Two months later I received a call from these tenants, who reported that they been without heat and hot water since they moved in, as the landlord did not properly secure his Certificate of Occupancy, and instead of reimbursing them their rent for their troubles and resolving the issue, the owner had supplied them with space heaters and a hot water rod for the shower. They called me because they were sick from the winter cold, and 311 had been no help to them. I reported the situation to my employer, but I never learned how these issues were resolved, and the other apartments in the building eventually rented. I never worked on that building again.
Eventually I realized that the most successful agents are aggressive, work constantly, know the right people, and are able to turn the occasional blind eye on an ethical issue or conflict of interest. While I built good relationships with clients and received many referrals, I was never able to break into the big-time. I didn’t have family or a partner to support me while I built my business, and I wasn’t aggressive enough to chase landlords whose listings I could have potentially represented. I didn’t know buyers because my friends didn’t have money. I became pigeon-holed in the mid-range rental market, too eager to help those like myself instead of pushing for higher-budget clients who might have been able to change my situation. I also harbored an internal political conflict about my job and my role in gentrifying these neighborhoods, which in retrospect hindered my ability to be more than just moderately successful. It became increasingly difficult for me to ignore the unethical practices of the business and I began to look for other full-time work. Unfortunately it took several years to secure another position that paid as much and/or offered the flexibility to which I had grown overly attached. In hindsight, the flexibility became a crutch I could not abandon, even as I grew aware that the structure of the job was negatively affecting my mental well-being.
With each year that passed, I became more and more anxious about my financial status and my future. Each month would begin with the same anxieties — would I get enough clients, and would I make my rent? It didn’t matter that I had always made rent before and paid my bills mostly on time. I was on a rollercoaster ride—one that began to affect my relationships and my ability to do the job. My managers would always say when I got into a funk that “the client can smell the desperation on you.” But when you’re desperate for cash with no backup plan, desperation is all there is. Ultimately, my anxiety became all-consuming simply because I never knew when I was getting paid next. When low season hit, I almost always had to find some kind of part-time job to make ends meet.
Besides never knowing when your next paycheck will come through, real estate agents have zero benefits. Most agents are required to work full-time or close to it by their agencies, and many put in 50–60+ hours of work a week, but agencies do not offer any kind of health care coverage, even for a contractor that has been with an agency for several years. The assumption exists that the commission payouts are significant enough to cover the cost of health care, but I have already established that that is not the case. At one point I was encouraged to apply for the now-defunct Healthy NY program, because it was possible for me to submit selective pay stubs that proved that my income met the requirements when it in fact did not. Instead, I relied on a sliding scale clinic for several years, until 2014, when I obtained Obamacare for a brief period, before finally securing a full-time salaried position with benefits as a property manager.
My experiences as a real estate agent in New York are by no means indicative of industry practices across the board, but I feel strongly that they represent a significant and misunderstood group of real estate professionals. The allure and promise of uncapped income potential with the flexibility of a freelancer is enough to keep fledgling agents playing the game, even if they are strongly mis-suited for the industry. Since employers benefit from each closed deal and it costs little to keep agents on the roster, there is little incentive to fire those who struggle, and easy to keep filling their heads with hope, even when that hope is not supported by the right set of skills. That said, while working in real estate in New York and Brooklyn is complicated at best and my job often conflicted with my personal moral code, I am grateful for what I learned about myself and the market, as well as the ability to truly appreciate full-time, salaried employment with benefits.
Francesca Hoffman is a Bed-Stuy resident, real estate agent turned property manager, event producer and musician.
Support The Billfold