Tom Schwenk on Increasing Fair Housing Opportunities for All

The owner and broker of Coldwell Banker TGRE and member of the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance discusses fair housing and barriers preventing individuals from achieving homeownership

With many inequalities and stressors plaguing individuals in marginalized groups who are searching for an affordable home, supporting local communities is integral to creating equal and fair housing opportunities for all. As we enter National Fair Housing Month, we are honored to connect with four leaders who are amplifying the voices of underrepresented communities. This is the first post in our annual series highlighting the strides that have been made in creating equal housing opportunities for all and the current challenges preventing further advancement.

This week, we connected with Tom Schwenk, broker-owner of Coldwell Banker TGRE and member of the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance, who highlighted the challenges of marginalized communities in Galveston, Texas, and how the community is working to establish fair housing.

How has fair housing progressed over the past few years?

Schwenk: Everyone should be able to pursue homeownership. However, for many in underrepresented communities it may feel like a far-off dream rather than a goal to work towards. I’m originally from New Jersey, however, now reside in Galveston, and while many may know the city as a resort island for tourists, there are many government officials and university students that live here. As a resort island, there are also many service workers who often don’t earn a fair wage – leaving them without an avenue to homeownership.

I’m proud of my local community in Galveston for establishing equal and fair housing opportunities through programs like Build Galveston – a nonprofit group working to increase the amount of available affordable housing by 2025 through new developments and lower costs for working class families. Additionally, when attending city council meetings, I notice that people aren’t rolling their eyes at the idea of creating equal opportunities for underrepresented communities and want to talk about fair housing.

I’d also like to highlight that despite the prevailing political climate, most people are empathetic and tolerant to diversity, which is how fair housing works. Galveston is one of the most accepting parts of Texas and I’ve been surprised to see how welcoming our community is to all. Living in Houston in the early ‘80s, I was often discriminated against for being a gay man, which came as a shock to me. However, it was even more shocking when I moved to Galveston, a small town of about 50,000 people at the time and was immediately accepted. The community here is ready and willing to welcome folks of all types, and we’re very proud of it. The more we see diverse folks in leadership, the more we can empower all to find opportunities to help everyone achieve homeownership.

 What has been your personal experience been when advocating for fair housing?

Schwenk: Since beginning my career, and especially since relocating to Galveston, supporting fair housing has been a top priority. A few years ago, a friend of mine shared that a local middle school student originally from El Salvador was interested in learning more about real estate. Being an owner of my own real estate company, I offered to meet with him and share my knowledge and experience within the industry.

While many students in Galveston have parents who are doctors or hold other higher paying positions, the student’s mother provided for her family by cleaning homes for a living. As many of the student’s classmates began to plan for their upcoming school-sponsored spring break trip, the student, not wanting his mother to feel embarrassed, threw away the trip details and permission form before even getting home. Seeing this, I asked the student if he was hurt or disappointed seeing his classmates take such an expensive trip, and what he said stuck with me: “Just because they started the race ahead of me doesn’t mean I can’t catch up.”

While it was not the purpose of his statement, it made me think of fair housing in Galveston. Just because some people in the community have generational wealth or parental assistance when purchasing a home, it doesn’t mean owning a home is impossible for others without similar help. The city itself offers free monthly fair housing workshops available to prospective homebuyers to provide details on how to navigate the homebuying process. Even if someone isn’t financially able to afford a home in Galveston, they’re able to learn about homes in nearby cities and plan to purchase a home in the future. Additionally, many people may not be sure what the homebuying process entails and are especially nervous to work with an agent due to language barriers. To combat this, my office assigns a Spanish-speaking agent to help families feel comfortable and guide them through the homebuying process.

What still needs to be done to create equal housing opportunities for all?

Schwenk: To be frank, I am tired of hearing from people like me – my age and my color. As a white male, I am afforded privileges that many marginalized folks do not have access to, and as a gay man, I do have moments where others may pause and be taken aback by my identity, but it has not prevented my husband and me from finding a home in Galveston.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, women and other marginalized communities are constantly patronized, and they do not need to be. People should be allowed to have red or blue hair, four piercings in their nose or tattoos… it should neither determine their abilities nor prevent them from living their lives without fear of judgement. We need to create opportunities to amplify diverse voices in leadership and where everyone can see people like themselves speaking on their behalf.

Additionally, we need to work towards creating equal access to educational opportunities, financial literacy, medical care and more. Lack of education in these areas may serve as a barrier for first-time homebuyers as they may not understand the process and question if they are making the right decisions. However, the more folks have access to educational opportunities, the greater they can find stability, so all aspects of their lives fall into place.

The Journey Continues

We are privileged to help amplify the voices of affiliated leaders like Tom who are passionate about fair housing and equitable homeownership opportunities. Follow the series here on the Blue Matter blog as we highlight the strides being made across the nation to reduce housing inequities and ways you can support that mission in your local community.

Senior Manager, Public Relations & Giving for Coldwell Banker. Grew up in Sarasota and attended college at Western Carolina University. Athena wanted to wake up in that city that doesn’t sleep so headed to Madison Avenue to start her marketing career. She has been with this awesome brand for more than 15 years and can be found generating buzz about CB in every way possible. Athena helps to grow the brand’s position as the most storied real estate company within the industry and has led many high-profile endeavors; she was at the forefront of the brand’s pioneering smart home campaign, raised $6 million in two years to build 130 Habitat for Humanity homes, and led the Homes for Dogs program in partnership with that resulted in tens-of-thousands of dogs finding their furever home. She currently leads the CB Supports St. Jude program, which encourages the Coldwell Banker network’s 96,000+ real estate agents to make donations to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital for every real estate transaction they represent. In her spare time, you can find her either digging up a new area in her yard for another flower bed or planning her next travel adventure. She's the proud mom of three cats Jolene, Ziggy and Lucy.

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