To understand how far the real estate market has fallen, look no farther than Audrey Wallace, an agent with Allen Tate Realtors.

From June to December 2008, she said, she closed, perhaps, one deal. She laid off one of her two office workers because she no longer could afford to pay her. The second worker stayed, but certainly not for the money.

“I’m indebted to her,” Wallace explained. “She knows she will get paid when I get paid, but it’s been rough. Only by the help of the Lord I made it.”

Or, consider Audrey Hope, owner of Hope Advantage Realty. She has only three or four listings, she said, down from the 50 to 60 she used to keep. To save money, she recently downsized from a large office to a small suite, and the eight agents she once employed no longer are with her.

“All of them left because they had to get jobs,” she said.

As bad as the real estate market has gotten, African American agents say they are faring far worse.

Black homeowners were especially hard hit by the nation’s foreclosure crisis, agents say, so fewer of their homes are being listed for sale. And with blacks unemployed at twice the rate of whites, fewer dollars are circulating in African American communities to buy homes.

Hope, who opened her business 16 years ago, once specialized in foreclosed homes. A few years back, she said, none of the bigger firms would touch that part of the market.

Now that has changed.

Hope said her once-thriving business has been slowly starved as large, white-owned companies have muscled in during the downturn.

“I’ve been squeezed, absolutely,” she said. “There is nobody out here with more experience than I have. I called HUD. I called FHA. Why am I not getting any of these (foreclosure) listings?”

Both Wallace and Hope do more than 95 percent of their business with other African Americans. Increasingly, they say, black homeowners looking to sell their homes are opting instead to rent.

“Whatever comes first,” Wallace said, “rent or sell.”

To help generate income, both agents said they have turned more to property management.

On a recent day in west Charlotte, Wallace showed an immaculate home to a young couple who recently moved from Florida. The house sat in a predominately black neighborhood hard hit by foreclosures. It was the only house in sight with a “For Sale” sign in the yard. But the owner had posted a second sign also offering the home for rent.

Wallace explained to the couple that with low interest rates and the house selling at a reduced price, buying would be cheaper than renting. The couple showed little interest, asking only about the particulars of renting.

Some agents say they have seen a recent uptick in new listings, open house showings and calls from potential buyers. “Certainly not a recovery,” Wallace said, “but a pick up.”

Agents say they hope the economic stimulus package recently signed by President Obama will bring much-needed relief.

“Because we hear so much doom and gloom about the economy, people are afraid,” Wallace said.

Frustrated by current conditions, Hope recently got a license to open an in-home day care. But the lousy economy and high unemployment are hurting that business too, she said. So far, not one client.

Just as well, she said: “I guess the Lord has not sent anybody my way because he knows it’s not where my heart is. My heart is actually in real estate.”

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