A 2006 report by the National Fair Housing Alliance, a group working against housing discrimination, points to the couture real estate company The Corcoran Group as one of the largest offenders of racial bias. As the New York Times reported in October 2011:

“During our 16 years of existence, the National Fair Housing Alliance has never seen such a literal and blatant example of sales steering,” the group wrote in a report detailing its allegations. In that particular instance, the report said, an agent “produced a map of Brooklyn and drew a red outline of the areas in which the white home seeker should consider living.” The agent used arrows to indicate neighborhoods that were “changing.”

“This racial steering tactic is reminiscent of discriminatory conduct from the 1970’s, when real estate agents would go into white neighborhoods with the specific intention of triggering white flight by showing on a map where an African-American family had bought a house,” the alliance wrote. “This Corcoran Group agent applied a new trick — he used a map to tell whites instead where they should ‘flee to.’ ”

As Gothamist reported, the Housing Alliance sent both black and white people into a Brooklyn Corcoran office posed as potential buyers. “Though the black “buyers” were more qualified, the whites received extra information about financial incentives. Further, the white “buyers” were urged to look in certain neighborhoods.”

An amendment to New York State law, effective January 1, 2011, requires that an agency disclosure form be used in all transactions involving “residential real property.” With the stated objections of “helping you to make informed choices about your relationship with the real estate broker and its sales agents,” the form is a coup for consumers venturing into the complex world of real estate – if they receive it. The form was news to me when my Corocran agent, Arlene Booth, attached it to an email written 4 July, close to two months after I made my first offer on the property. Her email read:

As I went through my records I recognized that it was not signed initially so please just sign and I will add the date.

Why would Booth go so far as to ask me to not date this form when presenting it to me just days after I signed a purchase contract? Turns out it was long overdue, as the March/April 2011 issue of New York State REALTOR demonstrates:

As can be seen by RPL§443(3)(a)-(c), the agency disclosure form set forth in RPL§443(4) must be presented to a consumer at “first substantive contact.” . . . “Substantive contact” occurs should a buyer express serious interest in discussing the terms of an offer or where a seller’s agent is helping a buyer identify suitable property.

As my real estate purchase began to unravel, after learning that the property had no certificate of occupancy, I brought various grievances to Corcoran’s Fort Greene Managing Director Juliana Brown. The confident administrator that she is, Brown assured me that Booth’s tardy disclosure form was not “illegal” as I said. Rather, she mentioned, the form was something that the office had voluntarily implemented.

Apparently the agency disclosure form was as much news to her as it was to me. Brown got the law wrong and actively defended her agents illegal actions. Confusion surrounding a new law is inevitable, but is outright denail of the law acceptable from a real estate firm’s managing director? Had the disclosure form been as insignifant as Brown expressed, why would Booth be motivated to postdate the document?

Have tough economic times caused The Corcoran Group to return to its unlawful roots? As The New York Daily News reported in June 2011, founder Barbara Corcoran weathered the 80s stock market crash and steered her namesake company through a “tough period” by moving into “an illegal, rent-controlled studio that belonged to my husband’s cousin.” The couture agency’s founder admits she knew her actions were illegal, but that it was instrumental in saving the company:

I knew what I was doing was illegal. But we lived there for over two years, and it helped with cash flow until the business got back on its feet.

The felonious move did save the company, which by 2011, when Corcoran sold it off, was worth $66 million. But has this dubious behavior haunted the company ever since? A ghost it is forever unable to excise?

Dear Jonathan,
Thank you for taking the opportunity to address my recent demonstrations against The Corcoran Group in “Occupy Corcoran: Do The Facts Add Up?,” posted to your Web site Brownstoner.com on Tuesday. These complex matters certainly demand the kind of expansive analysis you provided, though many of its claims hinge on arguments evacuated of important details. Maybe these facts will help make the math add up.

First, your criticism that my conflation of one person’s wrongdoings with an entire company leaves out the role of Corcoran’s corporate management in this problem.

I first aired my grievances with senior managing director Juliana Brown, who, from her administrative role, actively denied any wrongdoing or responsibility on the part of my agent. Her defense even extended to the most egregious ethical lapse: broker Arlene Booth’s failure to provide me with New York State’s Agency Disclosure Form until after I had signed my contract (well after it is required by law). Further, when I explained that Ms. Booth asking me to sign, but not date, the form was unlawful, Ms. Brown denied its illegality and claimed that the company implemented the disclosure form voluntarily.

Ms. Brown lied. In fact, this form became a requirement of New York law on January 1, 2011, with the stated intention of helping buyers or sellers “make informed choices about [their] relationship with the real estate broker and its sales agents.” It set out to combat the plight of uninformed consumers and to make the naive person you call me a bit more wise.

Second, your criticism that I singled out an “unconnected Corcoran broker” – thereby “threatening her livelihood” – is misinformed. The broker whose open house I demonstrated outside of last weekend (Merele Williams-Adkins) is a Corcoran Group vice president.

As a leader, Ms. Williams-Adkins has a duty to maintain and protect the ethical standards of the company. You also fail to note the threatening confrontation Ms. Williams-Adkins provoked when her husband arrived and warned me to never show up at his “wife’s open houses again.” Finally, I have never “harass[ed] potential buyers,” as you say. I politely offer my leaflets to appreciative members of the public.

In sum, your argument operates from a deeply cynical perspective: you presume that any attack on a commonly-loathed profession – against “dishonest” realtors or “fat-cat” bankers, lets say – is unfounded and opportunistic. Fortunately, this kind of cynicism has at certain times in history been defeated, winning us some of our most coveted rights (against the will of “corrupt” politicians). Every profession demands accountability. Even teachers, doctors and publishers like yourself, who must preserve their duty to the public against the pressure of satisfying advertisers.

I hope that your obligations fall on the side of your readers and you join me in making, perhaps, the general public more aware of their role in the real estate market.

Sincerely,
David

The New York State Supreme Court ruled against the Corcoran Group in 2009 case that The Real Deal reported, was a “landmark ruling” revolving around a leaky roof and slippery ethics. The lawsuit was brought about by Harold Einstein and Jennifer Boyd, a Brooklyn couple who purchased a nearly 1.3 million condo in Park Slope in 2007 from Corcoran. Upon moving in, the couple discovered that the roof had severe leaks that would flood their top-floor apartment whenever it rained. The suit alleged that Corcoran mislead the couple, including rescheduling meetings at the apartment on days that it rained. Emails brought before the judge, New York Daily News reported, included such requests by the broker: “I have pushed this appointment to Thursday, due to heavy rain.”

But before the case even got to trail, Justice Charles Ramos sanctioned the couture agency, declaring it misled the buyer and failed to “preserve and turn over electronic evidence revealing that Corcoran agents canceled appointments with prospective buyers on rainy days to hide a previously known problem with water leaks.” Corcoran issued this statement: “We disagree with the discovery ruling and intend to file an appeal at the appropriate time. This case is still in the discovery phase and no decision has yet been made on the merits of the case.” In a warning to Corcoran’s attorney, Judge Ramos said, “read the riot act” to their clients.”

“You want to call this a tap on the wrist instead of a slap on the wrist?” That’s what Manhattan attorney Jeffrey Arouh had to say about Corcoran’s 2010 punishment when it was exposed that “79 brokers and agents — including several top producers at the firm — had licensing irregularities,” The Real Deal reported in March 2011. Corcoran quietly admitted to violating State of New York law in June 2010, signing a consent order and paying a $70,000 fine.

The couture firm acknowledged that “from the start of 2006 to the end of 2007, 44 of its approximately 900 agents were unlicensed” while another 17 were licensed, but not through Corcoran, and 18 more were working under names that were not licensed. The punishment became public close to a year later when The Real Deal requested a copy of the consent order from the Department of State. Questioned by the real-estate newspaper, Corcoran placed blame the errors on a clerical error; a company license coordinator “failed to diligently execute his responsibilities.”

Arouh, who was uninvolved with the case, but asked by the paper to comment, saw the punishment as weak:

I would say the state did not perform well here. It is a remarkably low penalty for violations like this because it meant they were collecting huge commissions and paying them and splitting them with unlicensed brokers.

The state began investigating after a 2006 complaint by co-op buyer Mimi Fuhrman alleged that Corcoran’s listing broker, Jeffrey Joseph, was not unlicensed.

Read the full story here.

Turns out the creative public-relations strategy of Corcoran VP Merele Williams-Adkins was artfully executed by sculptor and University of Pennsylvania professor Terry Adkins. Adkins and his realtor wife live in Clinton Hill with their two children, not far from where the threatening confrontation took place on Sunday. Besides his Ivy-League credentials, having work in the collections of MoMA and the Met, and receiving a Rome Prize in 2009, Adkins has been known to espouse his views on freedom of expression and money:

Personally I measure success by being able to express myself freely, being able to exercise my creative imagination freely and if I am able to do that without any kind of hindrance and to, every once in a while, make some money from it, although that’s not really ideal, I measure that as a form as success.

I guess we caught Professor Adkins during his “every once in a while” period?  1.7 million dollar listings aren’t everyday things in Clinton Hill. Why not suspend freedom of expression for an open-house weekend?


Corcoran Vice President Merele Williams-Adkins called in some intimidation when I showed up at her open house on Sunday: her husband, wielding threats. I had been outside Williams-Adkins’ listing at 14 Saint James Place in Clinton Hill for just over an hour when a friend began to take photographs of my signs. This didn’t sit well with the VP’s husband, who had just arrived to do some of the dirty work. The following transpired:

“Don’t show up at one of my wife’s open houses again.”

Me: “Is that a threat?”

“It’s not a threat, it’s a promise.”

Me: “What will you do if I show up?”

“Show up and you will find out.”

Do Corcoran brokers typically have their spouses guarding the door? Are these the kind of tactics that got William-Adkins into The Corcoran Group’s “Multi-Million Dollar Club”? Does her uncle show up at your house and make you buy her listings?

Corcoran will continue to operate in an untrustworthy manner – fully protected by caveat emptor law – until the public announces its opposition to their unethical practices. If every person with a Corcoran Horror Story voices it in public (and there are many far worse than my own, I am told) Corcoran might have an incentive to stop masking the truth. Bad public relations might cost more than the commission on a quick, dishonest sale.

After a friendly, three-month-long relationship with Corcoran, entering into a contract to buy a studio apartment, acquiring a mortgage, and incurring out-of-pocket expenses, my lawyer determined that the property I was seeking to buy did not have a valid certificate-of-occupancy. We caught the blunder and my agent quickly wished me goodbye.

Angry, I approached Corcoran’s local managing director, Juliana Brown, who reminded me of New York’s caveat emptor (buyer beware) law: “What do you want me to do,” she said.

Buyer beware. Duh. Corcoran’s right. They have no legal liability in this case. What I didn’t ask, they didn’t have to tell.

But should real estate be a high-risk game of obfuscation and obstruction? Corcoran want’s to play this game, and why wouldn’t they? They have a lot of money to gain and little to lose. Did I mention that my Corcoran agent even recommended that I lie on a federal mortgage application (a felony) in order to make the sale?

Everything to gain and nothing to lose. An easy business, sure, but is it good business?