Evan Johnson, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, has two business cards. One, a conventional rectangle, simply says “Evan Johnson Realty Group.” The other is fancier, with two curved corners. It reads: “Evan Johnson, Realtor,” with “MyGayAgent.com” on the back.
The ambiguous slogan on the sexually neutral card—“Bold Company, Straightforward Real Estate”—might say more about Johnson’s business than the blunter one. Other realtors advertise in the Washington Blade (one slogan: “The Realtor for our community!”) but Johnson is the only one who’s so up front about his competitive advantage.
It’s fairly common for real estate agents to specialize in a geographic area. What Johnson’s done—focusing on a specific demographic—is a little less routine. He had been a general contractor in Northern Virginia, but he started MyGayAgent.com in 1999. Soon after, he met a banker named Tom Bauer, who joined the business when the two married in 2004. Their targeted marketing helped the team weather the economic downturn by attracting a niche audience—even in the slow, slow years of 2008 and 2009, Johnson closed a respectable total of 36 deals and did $10.1 million in sales, with a clientele that’s about 80 percent gay.
Despite their distinctive branding, though, at the 17th Street NW Coldwell Banker mothership, Johnson and Bauer don’t stand out. It’s an open and airy office, with people constantly circulating and glass walls that make everybody feel like part of everyone else’s business. And about half the agents based here are gay, including the branch vice president, Kevin McDuffie. Wearing a burnt orange plaid shirt and jeans, McDuffie stopped in to say hello on Saturday before heading out to spruce up his front yard for the 17th Street Festival, where the office would have a booth giving out multi-colored dog treats.
The high gay-to-straight ratio of Coldwell Banker’s Dupont Circle office is a legacy of a time when Dupont was a rainbow oasis, anchored by institutions like gay bookstore Lambda Rising, which folded last year. The housing boom of the last decade, though, put an end to that—incoming gay people can’t necessarily afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. At the same time, widening social acceptability has made it easier for gay people to spread wherever in the city they like.
“I think there’s a stereotype that gays want to live in Dupont, because that’s where the bars are, but that just isn’t the case,” says Bauer, who lives with Johnson near 10th Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue. “I don’t think gay people feel the need to cluster and alienate themselves anymore.”
And so, following a familiar pattern, gays have forged outwards into Shaw, Columbia Heights, 16th Street Heights, and into the H Street NE corridor, to the point where it’s difficult to identify any one as a “gayborhood.”
“Our community has been known historically for going into marginal neighborhoods and helping to fix them up, taking properties that are undervalued and helping to bring back neighborhoods,” says Rick Rosendall, a gay activist who has lived on or near 17th Street NW since 1984. “Now the heyday has passed, and the center of activity has moved a little bit east, and scattered. It’s no longer quite the hub of activity that it was.”
If the District no longer really has predominantly gay neighborhoods, and if gay agents are fairly common in the business these days, what makes marketing efforts like MyGayAgent.com useful?
The District, after all, is probably the most gay-friendly jurisdiction in the country. Gays and lesbians account for 8.1 percent of the population—the highest density of any state (probably because no states are comprised of just one city). While the national Fair Housing Act doesn’t prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the National Association of Realtors is still working GLBT protections into its ethics code, the D.C. Human Rights Act has outlawed such discrimination since 1977, and the D.C. Office of Human Rights recorded only one sexual orientation-related complaint on a housing issue in 2009. (Though that doesn’t mean it’s a thing of the past—the Equal Rights Center still has cases in D.C., mostly in rental housing).
Some straight real estate agents will even get training on how to behave around diverse populations. The National Association of Realtors offers a course in serving international buyers, which requires a familiarity with different customs around housing (feng shui, for example). There’s a similar class for gay and lesbian sensitivity, which can just mean not looking at clients strangely when they use GLBT-specific vocabulary.
“We find a lot of people want to use a gay real estate agent because whether it’s a couple or not, they can say oh, ‘a his and his closet, or a her and hers closet,’” says Johnson, who last Friday afternoon wore a blinding white polo embroidered with the MyGayAgent.com logo.
Still, fear of discrimination by straight people still persists in the gay community. You probably won’t find anyone advertising MyBlackAgent.com or MyJewishAgent.com—outright racism and anti-Semitism are harder to find in the real estate business than homophobia. Johnson and Bauer, by selling their gay-friendly credentials, offer a guaranteed comfort level for buyers. (And when they list houses, nobody has to know the seller is gay—they can just use the EvanJohnson.com label.)
“As a gay couple, there can be a very real fear of rejection,” says Richard Vitale, 26, who met Johnson at the 2007 Gay Pride parade and called him up when he and his partner started looking for a house. “There’s always this moment when you wonder, am I going to get discriminated against? When you work with Evan, that’s immediately off the table.” Priced out of Dupont, Vitale found a spacious condo in Takoma, where they found a thriving lesbian scene.
For those moving out of the area, Johnson maintains a list of known gay-friendly real estate agents all over the country.
“If you just choose an agent, by just throwing a dart, you don’t know the person you’re getting is going to be open to your lifestyle,” says Bauer, noting that some of their clients have already had uncomfortable experiences with straight realtors. “They weren’t feeling the warm fuzzies, because they felt like they were getting judged.”
If gay buyers are nervous about prejudice in tolerant D.C., they may have real cause for concern in Virginia, which is among the worst in the nation when it comes to gay rights. Straight realtor Valerie Blake, who has cultivated a large gay clientele by advertising in the Blade (she started 11 years ago with the double-entendre tagline, “Experience your first time in 1999!”), remembers one open house in Virginia where she was told that the owners didn’t want to sell to a gay person.
“I thought, they can’t do that, it’s illegal!” she says. “And then I thought, well they can do that, we’re in Virginia.”
Bauer and Johnson do market themselves as knowing the local points of interest for gay people—and according to Vitale, they have a sense of the “gay aesthetic,” which he characterizes as “a little avant garde, something a little out of the ordinary.” But they have to take care not to steer anyone to a particular neighborhood just because they’re gay, in order to abide by fair housing laws themselves. In a statement to Housing Complex, the national Fair Housing Alliance said it “strongly discourages using any class or category that is protected by federal or state laws in any form of advertising.”
“Let’s say a lesbian couple were to read that language and say the word ‘gay’ applies to men,” explains Dan Sullivan, the alliance’s senior enforcement program director. “If they could demonstrate that that’s what the language meant to them, then they might actually have a claim, because they could allege that that’s sex discrimination.”
Still, it’s unlikely that any fair housing organization would go after Johnson and Bauer for their out-and-proud marketing strategy. If anything, they’re threatened by competition: A D.C.-based lesbian real estate couple started gayrealtors.us.com about a year ago, but declined to talk about it. Johnson and Bauer have already squelched people who more brazenly copied their concept.
It’s a business, after all. “At the end of the day, it’s marketing,” says Bauer. “You search gay agent online, and we come up.” CP
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