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OPINION

Boston must expand opportunity for real estate developers of color

Expanding the face of our industry will happen one new relationship at a time.

A 2019 aerial view of Boston's Seaport District.
A 2019 aerial view of Boston's Seaport District.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At the Builders of Color Coalition, we’ve been working to expand access and diversity across Boston’s real estate sector to create greater opportunities for land ownership and wealth. We’ve quickly grown to a network of more than 500 real estate professionals of color in the region, and this spring we launched the Boston Minority Real Estate Directory to connect the breadth of our network with the rest of the power structures in the industry. This directory is a major step forward in our organizing efforts, but this alone will not solve the searing opportunity gaps in our city.

Boston is a tribal town, made up of an array of neighborhoods, cultural associations, and other social groups. We are notorious for being fiercely supportive of our social circles — and also for building strong walls between them. It’s hard to break into tribes, but once you’re in, you’re in. This is what I love about our city. But it’s also what holds the city back.

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We may be well intentioned when we look out for our own, but it backfires by creating huge disparities between us. In real estate, who you know heavily determines your access and your outcomes. The solution is to earnestly seek out new connections, make new friends, grow your tribe, and open up the wealth of opportunity in our city.

The tragedies and the protests of the past year have inspired a tidal shift in consciousness and action across our country. In Boston, there is a surge of interest in working with individuals and firms of color. Homogenous company and project teams are no longer acceptable. These days I get more calls and e-mails for professional referrals than I can field. I’m grateful for the enthusiasm, and yet the work of building new working relationships doesn’t happen overnight. Dialing down a list will not yield the results that we seek. In our field, we rarely partner on new projects without some level of personal history, without the time it takes to get acquainted. And even when those relationships are built, we have to continuously maintain them.

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So in addition to using our directory to solicit partners and vendors for development projects, real estate firms should also seek out specific connections and build them over time. They should attend diverse professional events with the goal of finding a single new contact, set up periodic coffee chats, invite one another to future social events, go on walks or hikes together and, over time, grow these relationships to become mutually supportive.

To expand access in the industry, real estate professionals of color need specific opportunities, including open job postings, greater access to bidding on contracts, and increased financing. But we will also need peers and mentors to help us find our footing, to enter the social and professional spaces that will open up our careers, and to work together to create value for each other and our communities.

For many of us, the past year of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic has refocused our social circles. It’s also prompted us to look around and realize how much our networks look a lot like ourselves. At the start of 2021, a friend of mine wrote on Facebook that “2021 won’t be different unless we are.” As we look to emerge from the pandemic and grow back our bonds, let’s commit to making them richer and more inclusive, each new relationship at a time — to build better, even stronger tribes than before.

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Dave Madan is founder and chair of the Builders of Color Coalition.