Ending Discrimination Must Be ‘Top Item’ For Real Estate: OJO Labs CEO

OJO Labs CEO John Berkowitz and Realtor.com CMO Mickey Neuberger hit the Inman Connect stage to talk about eliminating discrimination and how tech could level the playing ground.

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The pandemic has proven to be a double-edged sword for the housing market with homesellers and well-to-do buyers primed to take advantage of low-interest rates and added career flexibility, while first-time, lower-income and minority buyers often floundered through an uber-competitive landscape.

Although it’s easy to focus on the million-dollar buyers and sellers, OJO Labs Founder and CEO John Berkowitz and Realtor.com CMO Mickey Neuberger urged brokers to keep disenfranchised communities top of mind as the industry races toward a digitized future.

“I think the first thing that is very unique in real estate, is that technology and innovation have, so far, made it actually harder to navigate real estate,” Berkowitz said of the majority of buyers experiences. “And that’s not a lack of effort and innovation. It’s just the nature of the sheer surface area of consumer needs, all of the innovation into all these different solutions.”

“If you step back, as an American, it’s harder right now because you’re like, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” he added. “It’s not just ‘I’ll go talk to my real estate agent,’ cause there are 50 people telling me and so that is very rare.”

Both men said homebuyers, especially first-timers and those from diverse communities, need additional help and resources to navigate the homebuying process due to the discrimination that can happen at any point of the process, from getting financing to finding a real estate agent they can trust to serve them equitably.

Part of that process, they said, is providing homebuyers with more housing and financing choices that can solve their specific issues.

“COVID has really accelerated how many technologies are out there and how many solutions are out there, and then the next phase is about giving consumers choice and giving it to them in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them, that’s personalized, that’s guided and takes them through the real estate journey,” Neuberger said. “The other thing COVID has accelerated is just people’s walk [and] understanding of social causes [and] connection to social causes.”

“A couple of months into my new role at Realtor.com, I did a bit of a listening tour and I spoke to a lot of first-time homebuyers and I spoke to a lot of diverse first-time homebuyers,” he added. “What they want is to connect with agents that have the same values as they have, that won’t discriminate against them [and] that have completed diversity training. So we’ve developed a widget to help consumers find those agents.”

Berkowitz said OJO Labs is doing its part in reducing barriers by creating a platform that helps agents serve the $200,000 buyer at the same level they’d be able to serve the $1 million buyer.

“I mean, the reality is in this market, finding a home for a $200,000 buyer is really challenging and then they have other financial constraints. Also, I’m gonna get paid less on it,” he said while noting the need for more varied commission structures. “I think there are multiple things companies like ours need to adjust in our business model… [to] make less as a proportion and then add as much service and support to those consumers.”

Although fair housing, discrimination and greater housing access for all buyers may not be on the top of most agents’ and brokers’ lists, Berkowitz and Neuberger said the industry must push to generate change from within or regulators will take the reigns and do it.

“It’s not an easy problem to solve,” Neuberger said. It’s a really complicated one, but if we each do our part, whether it’s changing incentive structures, or doing work that’s not just for the sake of driving profit, we can make an impact.”

Berkowitz added, “There’s a huge business opportunity, whether you’re excited about the social nature of doing what’s right and giving Americans homes, or you’re a fear person that’s realized regulators will step in and start really changing things if we don’t change it first. Whatever your North Star is, we must figure out these access problems as a top item for all of us.”

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