When Marcus Martin looks back on his years selling commercial real estate in Tampa, he's struck by how unusual that was.
"Maybe one time did I come across an African-American agent other than myself," the Florida State graduate says, "and never in the commercial ranks."
And while Martin, 38, has met other black Realtors since joining a St. Petersburg firm, he finds them "few and far between" in that city, too.
Flip through any real estate magazine and chances are you won't see many, if any, black faces among the smiling legions of listing agents. Nor is that paucity unique to Tampa Bay.
Last year, African-Americans made up just 4.2 percent of all real estate brokers and agents in the United States. Of the 340 job categories for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps figures, only 32 ranked lower in percentage of black workers employed.
Why do so few black Americans go into real estate?
"Real estate is very tough when it comes to income," said Herbert Fisher, an African-American broker in Brandon and former chairman of the Florida Real Estate Commission. "When you get in this business you may be looking at two, three, four months when you're not making money. It can be lucrative but it's really a gamble."
Another reason for the dearth of black Realtors: the low rate of home ownership among black adults in general.
Just 43.5 percent own their homes compared with nearly 80 percent of whites. That means they are less likely to need the services of Realtors and less likely to think of real estate as a potential career.
And then there's the matter of connections.
"It's a field where who you know makes a difference," says Valerie Norris, a black real estate agent in Pinellas County. "Networking and connections are super important."
Norris thinks black agents starting out are at a disadvantage because they're not apt to know people "with tons of money." And it's those kinds of people, mostly whites, who gravitate toward real estate agents who are white, too.
"It's a comfort thing," Norris said. "You feel comfortable with someone you know and who looks like you and that you feel a sense of trust with, especially when you're making a huge decision like buying a house."
An out-of-work graphic artist, Norris had almost no connections when she began selling real estate in 2011 while the market was still in a slump. But with so many agents leaving the field, she was welcomed into a Century 21 office in the waterfront community of Tierra Verde.
Norris impressed her broker by landing her first listing within a month though she made less than $10,000 that year. Still, "it was good in terms of getting my feet wet and getting people to actually listen to me and trust me."
Now, three years later, she has branched into the potentially lucrative area of managing rental properties. At 52, she's making enough to support herself but still gets "strange looks'' at times.
"I think color can be both an advantage and disadvantage. If you're black, you're really going to have to prove yourself a little more. You get a walk-in and they look like, 'Mmmm, you're going to try to sell me a half-million dollar property?' An advantage is that you look different, so it could be a novelty."
For Fayola Goldstone, another black Pinellas agent, her Caribbean heritage, not her skin color, is what stands out to potential clients.
"They'll say, 'Oh, you're from Trinidad and I'm from the Dominican Republic or Belize or Chile and we have similar cultures.' They draw a lot of parallels because they're not from here so they want me to help them."
When Goldstone. 36, got her license a decade ago, however, she found subtle signs of discrimination. The interviewer at one nationally known company hinted she would work only with black clients. At another firm, "the receptionist wouldn't even take my name."
Like Norris, Goldstone joined Century 21. She did so well she bought three small offices on Clearwater Beach and built a strong business in condo sales and rentals. But tired of managing other agents, she accepted an invitation two years ago to go with Coastal Properties Group International, a Christie's subsidiary that specializes in luxury homes.
In the first seven months of 2014, Goldstone had 23 sales — twice as many as the typical U.S. Realtor has in an entire year. She has 33 current listings, 11 of them under contract.
"I've just never thought about being black," she said. "I'm too busy thinking about my next prospect."
For one of Tampa Bay's veteran black agents, the prospects have been fewer in recent years
When Lou Brown opened his office in St. Petersburg in 1980, he benefitted from the reputation of his parents, widely known educators who got their real estate licenses after retiring.
It also helped that many area black families had been displaced by construction of Interstate 275 and received government money to find new homes.
The 2008 recession, though, hit black neighborhoods and black real estate agents especially hard. Brown closed his office and now works out of his house. He is down to five agents, from about 15 at the peak.
"I don't know if you want to call it a blood-letting but quite a few were unable to hang on and dropped out during that time period," said Brown. "There are a few of us out there, but the numbers are not where they should be."
He and others say that cost continues to deter many black people from going into real estate. It takes almost $500 to get a Florida license. Add several hundred dollars a year for membership in national, state and local Realtor organizations, mandatory for access to multiple listing services. Then there are "desk fees,'' typically a few hundred dollars a month, to conduct business in a real estate office.
All of this adds up in a commission-based field with no steady paycheck.
To encourage minorities to join the profession, the National Association of Realtors once offered grants for scholarships to real estate school. But it had to end those because it is illegal under federal law to favor one group over another in housing and real-estate related matters.
Fisher, the black Hillsborough broker, said he started a similar program while president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors in the mid 1990s. But that ended when he left.
"Once inside an organization, you can help make change, but most people are not willing to volunteer," Fisher said. "It does take a lot of time for all these board meetings and committees.''
Fisher, who spent 20 years in the military, built his real estate business initially catering to clients from MacDill Air Force Base. He later moved his office from Tampa to Brandon, where all but two of his 25 agents are black and the clientele is largely white.
Now 77, Fisher also teaches at the Bob Hogue School of Real Estate, the area's largest. He's encouraged to see as many as five black students among the 25 to 30 students per class.
"They're coming in," he said.
Alberta McKinney, 57, recently joined Brown's St. Petersburg firm. She laments that many listings in the city's black neighborhoods go to white agents from big national companies, which have the advertising clout that mom-and-pop firms often lack.
"They just come into the African-American community to do business, and the money they make they take back to their own community so it's hard for Realtors who actually live here," she said.
"I'm looking to help build up my community, not come in, make money and go."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] Follow @susanskate.