How REBNY’s First Black President Is Changing the Face of An Industry

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Written by Maryann Reid

First Black President
John Banks, President, Real Estate Board of NYREBNY

John H. Banks got an email in 2014.  It asked him if he knew anyone interested in being president of a 100-year-old organization. His answer? Me.

Banks, The Real Estate Board of New York’s first African-American president, has a storied, long history in New York politics starting with Mayor Koch’s administration, tenures in the City Council and at ConEd just months after 9/11. Much of his career has been spent navigating the political and governmental landscape in New York City.  He credits many of the relationships he has today from that “idyllic time,” as he recalls.  Banks believes that there is no better place than REBNY, a real estate trade organization that “works to protect, improve, and advance the business of real estate in New York City,” to continue his advocacy background at the highest level.  What attracted him most was that he could engage in meaningful public policy making, an essential part of his over 30-year career.  Yet, he knows that there is much more that REBNY can do, especially for people of color.

Maryann Reid: Your latest opportunity as the first African-American president at REBNY is significant.  What does it mean to you?

John H. Banks III: The entirety of my life I have been the first African-American to do something.  I was the first African-American to be the deputy director of the City Council Finance Division.  I was the first African-American to be chief of staff of the City Council. I was the first African-American to be head of government community relations for ConEd.  So, it’s just a natural part of the progression that I wound up here as the first African-American to be head of the Real Estate Board of New York.  And I think it’s more of a statement about the Board and what they wanted to achieve.  I just happen to be available at the time they were coming to grips with what they were looking to do with regards to the face of the organization in the industry.

Reid: How can more people of color get involved in real estate?

Banks: The residential side of the industry is much more diverse and reflective of the communities of the city of New York. Where it gets more difficult is on the commercial side and on the development ownership side….The capital is the barrier to entry. What you find in other communities, there are people engaged in real estate ownership and development on a much smaller scale.  So, it’s not uncommon for two workers to get together and say, ‘you know, let us take our human capital or our labor and invest in that 2-family building’.  And they renovate it, rent it, and replicate that again.  They start a portfolio of 6-8 different properties.  That’s the scale that people of color wind up engaging in on the development side.

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Reid: What about on the commercial broker side.  Why aren’t there more people of color there?

Banks: The problem that the commercial brokerage side has is that competition for people of color that you need to do the analytics, the math, the number crunching, and project management is high for the same people of color that Wall Street is competing for, that other industries are competing for, and they pay a much higher salary…And because of that dynamic it is hard to bring people of color into the industry and get them to stay.

There are plenty of articles in the last year about the lack of diversity in the commercial real estate sector.  It’s something we are keenly aware of and trying to figure out how to change that dynamic.  But it’s not easy.

REBNY’s first black president wants to embrace diversity

Reid: What the tech industry has done to attract more people of color is a great model to look at.

Banks:  It really is.  Bill Rudin, the current [REBNY] chairman has embraced diversity and inclusion as part of his goals for his 3-year tenure.  We are looking at all of the different ways that people might get engaged.  What are the barriers to entry?  What can we do to break down those barriers?  In the next year and a half, we will begin to roll out programs that we think will help us address those problems….We don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel.  We just have to find the right wheel to hook our wagon to.

Reid: What do you think of the recent New York City Amazon deal?

Banks: It’s a great deal.  An organization is going to bring 25,000 jobs with an average income of $150,000 and all other benefits that are part of the package that has been described in the media.  Two hundred cities around the country competed for it.  We won.  We should be happy….It’s going to spur development which is going to hire construction workers who are going to buy sandwiches at the bodega, and patronize the community.  There will be an influx of residents.  We are now the second largest tech hub in the country.

Reid: As you look back on your career, do you have influential role models or mentors that have helped you?

Banks: You know this is going to sound a little too contrived, but my mom was a huge role model for us.  My dad died when I was 17, and so there were five kids she raised on her own.  We’re all reasonably successful.  Well balanced participants in the social contract. Just watching her do that was always something that I had found incredibly empowering and lucky to be a part of.

Professionally, former speaker [of the New York City Council] Peter Vallone [Senior], was a tremendous impact on my life.  I didn’t know him from anybody but he gave me successive opportunities to do bigger and bigger jobs. His confidence in me was always something that I am very thankful for.

Reid: You’re president of REBNY.  Where do you go from here?

Banks: I never had a grand plan.  George Washington Plunkett had a saying he would often use which is ‘I have seen my opportunities and I’ve took ‘em.’  And I have always seen opportunities and I’ve took them.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.