Something about H. Bernie Jackson's voice demands to be heard. Soft and slightly weathered, it exudes a strength that comes with experience and years of mastering the art of speaking one's mind.
No wonder the successful Baltimore real estate broker and owner of BJR Associates is the new chairman of the board for the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, which calls itself the oldest and largest minority trade association in America.
For more than 25 years, Jackson has spoken out for what he calls "democracy in housing," an advocate for those who might otherwise have no voice.
Raised in Baltimore's southern and western areas, the city native bought his first home with the idea that he would sell it for a profit one day. It proved a wise move. Within five years, the property doubled in value. Jackson sold the home and, with his wife's blessing, invested the money in other properties, which he renovated and later rented.
"It was the American dream," he recalled. "Early on in life, I went that route, when I saw the advantage of owning real estate was the way to go."
Jackson got his real estate license in 1976 and began working full time with Otis Warren Co. Again, his timing was impeccable.
"I was fortunate," he said, "because I came in with a broker whose business skyrocketed. It boomed. He had a little office over on Edmondson Avenue and in one year's time it grew to having about 75 agents. When I saw that, I thought, 'Well, this guy can do it; I can do it.' "
Three years later, he became a broker, and shortly thereafter set out on his own. At that time, the Baltimore area had a handful of minority brokers. Today, it has about 50 of them.
From the start, Jackson recognized a double standard in how minority brokers were treated. It was no surprise to him that the needs of the African-American community were being overlooked by white brokerages.
The National Association of Real Estate Brokers was founded by African-Americans in 1947 because the National Association of Realtors barred them from membership.
Incensed by predatory lending and discriminatory practices, Jackson set his sights on changing the status quo.
Jackson soon found himself on a mission that over the years would lead him many times to the halls of Congress. It was there he testified about the need for equal rights in housing and served as a spokesman for millions of Americans -- not only minorities but also the disabled, the middle class, the working poor and families with children.
"When I first started out, we were fighting NAR," he recalled. "They were the major backers to fight the Fair Housing Act of 1968. They said it wasn't beneficial to their members, and I agree. It wasn't beneficial to their members. Their members are 90 percent nonminority, and they speak well for their members.
"They also opposed a lot of the Fair Housing amendments that came out in 1988. That's when we came out for the amendments for the disabled and for those families with children. They also didn't think that was beneficial to their members."
The National Association of Real Estate Brokers, says Jackson, was instrumental in helping him realize that he was not alone. Today, the association has about 8,000 members nationwide and is a strong political force. The majority of the association is still run by brokers who, like Jackson, own their own businesses.
"When you meet people who have similar problems that you have, and it's across the country, it makes your life a lot easier," he says. "You know you aren't fighting a hopeless battle in Baltimore, that there are other battles across the country that require the same type of attention, and you could only fight those battles if you fight them as a group.
"With 62 boards across the country, it takes every one of us to get our voices heard in front of Congress and HUD and all the other major players."
But he harbors no bad feelings.
"I think I have benefited, because I know perfectly well what's going on, the internal makeup of our association as well as the internal operation of the other major association, the National Association of Realtors. I don't begrudge them. I've been a member of their association as long as I've been a member of ours."
"But," he quickly added, "I don't utilize their association, other than their [multiple listing service]."
In 1982, Jackson founded BJR Associates, one of the few minority-owned property management companies in the state. He describes it as "the dirt end of the business."
On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he is responsible for such unenviable tasks as evicting tenants and maintaining rental properties.
"It means you have to go there yourself and correct the problems. No, there aren't that many people who want to do it. Those that have," he added, "should succeed."
Today, BJR Associates manages more than 250 properties in Baltimore and Baltimore County. For 12 years, BJR was the exclusive real estate asset manager for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in most of Maryland.
A devout family man, Jackson was married for 32 years. "Without her support, I wouldn't be where I am today," he said of his late wife.
His son has worked by his side for more than 10 years. His daughter, an attorney who also works in the family business, has taken her father's lead and serves as president of the Real Estate Brokers of Baltimore, the local board of the national organization.
One day -- although perhaps not as soon as they would like, Jackson jokes -- BJR Associates will belong to his children.
"It's one of those things minorities don't usually have. For most minorities, the only thing your parents will usually give you is debt. It's hard to find a minority that can really pass on a business or some equity to the next generation, which will make life a lot easier for that generation coming up. That's a vision that I have, and they do as well."
Jackson's new post as chairman is his 10th in the hierarchy of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers.
He has been local board president, regional vice president and national vice president. From 1997 to 1999, he was the association's president.
Jackson says minority firms now face problems caused by the real estate industry's consolidation. Mammoth brokers now control the majority of the market nationwide. And the minority businesses are threatened with extinction, particularly as the expanding larger firms siphon off their agents.
"The mega-mergers absorb some of our agents into their companies. ... Is that progress?" he asked. "Not for us. It's only progress if you say bigger is better. And we know that bigger is not better, by the massive amount of large corporations we have seen in the last two years become completely bankrupt."
Lack of capital
The minority real estate brokers lack the multimillion-dollar advertising budgets and bundled services -- the "one-stop shops" -- of the giant real estate brokerages.
"We are losing our minority agents to majority companies, because they just have so much more capital to work with," Jackson said. "The small businesses are feeling this effect not only locally, but nationally. It's not only for Baltimore; it's for New York, Chicago, Houston. All of our boards are in a similar situation. We are feeling the same type of effect."
In Baltimore, he says, minority brokers are responding by uniting and contemplating innovative solutions, such as adopting a uniform signage to increase visibility. They also are concentrating efforts on recruiting more agents into the industry.
"The mega-companies are offering free licensing courses. ... We're going to have to understand that's the way it has to be done, to bite the bullet and to give those classes free, and hopefully we'll be able to retain more of the minorities coming into the business."
And there are more battles ahead, a reality that Jackson accepts. Housing discrimination by homebuyers and sellers, predatory lending and insurance redlining are familiar culprits, says Jackson.
But with the National Association of Real Estate Brokers and others behind him, he hopes the day is near when these practices will end.
In the meantime, a poised and seasoned Jackson is ready for the road ahead.
"That's what you do. You just say: ... 'I do' ... 'I'll be a beacon for democracy in housing.' And it just hit me years ago. And here it is today, 25 years later. I've reached a pinnacle, and I will still fight for democracy in housing, because it's an issue that's going to be there for a little while longer."