by Jessica Carreras
Recently, Richard Harrison of newcomer real estate company Pride Realty Associates was taking a lesbian couple to see a home in Ferndale, just north of Nine Mile Road. It was a beautiful home with a brand new two-car garage, recent renovations – and a flagpole with a tattered, faded, but still clearly visible gay pride flag attached to it.
And that’s how Harrison thinks of his business: A rainbow flag constantly waving, reminding anyone he works with that yes, it’s possible for Michigan couples to find realtors who will help them find a home and who they can be out and open with.
Harrison’s Pride Realty is one of a handful of gay-run real estate companies in the area, but he’s also the newest addition to the bunch.
“I’m a gay man and I’ve been in a relationship for 13 years, and one of the things I noticed as I was talking to friends was how they felt awkward or uncomfortable having to deal with mortgage companies or real estate companies, trying to explain their partner,” he explains of his decision to start Pride Realty. “A lot of real estate agents will say, ‘Is your wife coming? Is your girlfriend coming?’ making people very uncomfortable.”
For Harrison, the story was no different.
A Baltimore, Md. native, Harrison spent 30 years on the east coast before moving to Florida and working in information technology as a company manager. Like so many others in today’s economy, when his company was shut down, he relocated. Michigan was his choice, but by the time Harrison arrived in the mitten some five years ago, he found that options for IT specialists were even more bleak here than down south.
That’s when real estate came into his life. “I had some friends in the real estate market, so I started learning and training and luckily managed to get in with two (property management) companies – Serra Communities and Norwood Companies,” Harrison recalls. “That’s how I met Norman Finkelstein.”
Finkelstein has been Harrison’s broker ever since, and now is his business partner with Pride Realty.
The two set up shop at Ferndale’s Motor City Pride in June, and that’s when they got to thinking: Why not start up their own company – one that catered specifically to the LGBT community and did everything it could to make the experience of buying or renting a home or apartment easy, comfortable and free of discrimination?
Though more and more cities are beginning to instate anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT citizens from prejudice in such areas as employment, public services and housing, only 17 cities in Michigan currently have that standard, including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Flint. Currently, battles to enact the ordinance are being waged in Jackson, Kalamazoo and Hamtramck.
However, the lack of an umbrella state or federal law means that in most Michigan cities – and many other cities and states around the country – it is still legal for a home seller or apartment leaser to discriminate against LGBT people or families.
But Harrison and others like him are looking to make sure that prejudice never plays a part in the home buying process.
And Harrison knows something about it, too: He was once a victim of intolerance and ignorance when trying to find a home.
“Some years ago, (my husband and I) went to rent an apartment and when the agent was working with me, she was like, ‘Well where’s your wife? Where’s your girlfriend?’ And I said, ‘Well…I have a roommate,'” he remembers lying. “‘Oh. A roommate? What kind of roommate?’ I asked, ‘Does it matter?’ and she stumbled. It made me feel really uncomfortable.”
Whether it’s a simple lack of knowledge about how to treat LGBT couples or blatant discrimination, Harrison says he’ll do anything he can to make sure the buyers he works with can avoid it. “We don’t have equal rights,” he says bluntly. “So when they come in to Pride Realty, … I always attempt to make all possible aspects of the real estate transaction as easy and comfortable to the client as possible, including approaching whoever the leaser is. I personally say, ‘This is a gay couple or lesbian couple. Are you uncomfortable with that? If you are, I’ll look somewhere else.'”
Though business is hurting in Michigan, Harrison says his start-up, launched in the worst economy since the Great Depression, is doing just fine. “The start-up is going a lot better than we expected,” he shares. “So far, everything has gone fantastic with no complaints. Everybody’s feeling 100-percent comfortable and understanding that they’re going to be treated just like any other couple.”
Currently, Harrison says he’s working with a gay couple, two lesbian couples and a straight couple – all of which he wholeheartedly welcomes, not wanting to exclude allies from the mix. “One of the things I wanted to prove was that the world has become a very diverse community,” he says. “Pride Realty was created to meet that challenge of diversity. We don’t care if you’re gay, straight, lesbian, transgender, bisexual – it doesn’t matter to us.”
So wave that pride flag high.