When it comes to particular quirks that appear in an otherwise relentlessly average landscape, the devil is often in the details. Something odd is always there, even if it’s hidden in plain view. A home for sale in the suburban outreaches of Indianapolis shouldn’t raise any red flags; a “for sale” sign really wouldn’t elicit concern much anywhere. But this one is a bit unusual.
As often is the case, I can only apologize for the photo’s blurriness and awkward angle: needless to say, I had to take it from within a car, and the street was busy enough that I could never slow down much. But a zoom in can reveal the details that make this sign such an unusual case.
The name is Mang Tha Real Estate. While this probably wouldn’t seem like an unusual establishment in California, it’s a lot less common in Indianapolis, which was a WASP stronghold until about 20 years ago (some would argue that it still is). At any rate, over the last two decades it has emerged as a new frontier for immigrants; a desirable alternative to higher cost cities like Chicago but with a generally resilient and diverse economy.
And, truth be told, “Mang Tha” might strike even most Californians as somewhat exotic. It clearly isn’t Japanese or Chinese or Filipino. Based on the location in Indianapolis, it is almost definitely Burmese—more specifically, the Chin people of Myanmar, an ethnic group that has established a considerable foothold in Indianapolis over the last decade, fleeing a militarized government that has subjected them to arbitrary arrest, forced prison, and execution, among other atrocities. These days, the Chin—mostly Christians in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country—comprise less than 1% of Myanmar’s population. Their presence in Indianapolis has increased exponentially, from a handful of families at the turn of the 21st century to a community approaching 10,000 people, with particularly strong concentrations in Indy’s near south side.
A number of nonprofits operate throughout Indianapolis (as is the case in most other metros of its size or larger) with a specific goal of assisting the transition of recent immigrant arrivals, specifically devoting attention to the resettlement of political refugees. The growing Chin presence in Indy owes a considerable amount to Exodus Refugee Immigration, a 501(c)(3) organization that not only aids the physical relocation of Burmese families into housing in metro Indy, but it also offers resources that mitigate against housing costs, language differences, cultural assimilation challenges, and basic necessities—honing in on the needs of refugees during their first 90 days after their arrival to the US.
But the people at Exodus aren’t the only ones bringing them in. Mang Tha Real Estate plays another pivotal role, though its engagement with the Chin comes at a different point in the assimilation process. As in the case with most immigrant communities, immigrants in Indianapolis typically enter apartments when they first arrive. In many cases, the refugees congregate in a few apartment communities. Since organizations such as Exodus Refugee Immigration must stretch their own budgets to pay most or all of the rent for refugee households, it comes as no surprise that the Chin’s have mostly clustered in a few older, less desirable apartment complexes where the rents are low. In Indianapolis, the epicenter of the Burmese community seems to be around Madison Avenue and Stop 11 Road, just west of the enclave suburb of Southport. Around here, Chin-owned restaurants and markets are dotting the landscape in ever-greater numbers.
But the Chin Burmese community of Indianapolis hasn’t necessarily lingered in those aging, somewhat seedy apartment buildings. The Greentree Apartments tend to have the reputation of attracting the most recent, least assimilated arrivals. Before long, the upwardly-mobile Chin have often moved to nicer rental units, and some—no doubt abetted by Indianapolis’ supremely affordable housing market—have become homeowners in the area. Enter Mang Tha Real Estate, serving the needs of Chin homeowners.
A real estate company defined by cultural heritage may strike some as problematic. After all, throughout the twentieth century, the US implemented policies that specifically intended to protect individuals from housing discrimination, yet here we witness a company that has emerged specifically to help a particular ethnic group find homes. Is Mang Tha trying to sell homes to Burmese clients at the exclusion of other ethnic groups? Moreover, did they emerge to respond to the fact that other realty companies in the area refused to serve Chin clients?
Neither of these hypothetical situations is permissible under the Fair Housing Act, first passed as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The website for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides a more thorough description of all the stipulations for the Fair Housing Act, including more recent amendments that specifically mandate HUD’s enforcement. The Act prohibits a variety of discriminatory acts pertaining to housing, ranging from refusing loans, making housing unavailable, blockbusting, or offering inconsistent or capricious terms and conditions in securing housing—both rental and ownership. While the list of prohibited acts extends well beyond the ones listed above, the list of protected classes at the federal level is small and explicit: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap/disability. States and municipalities may expand or set more stringent parameters as they pertain to these protected classes (and they often have), but no jurisdictions can exempt themselves. These classes receive protection throughout the country.
While exceptions to the application of the Fair Housing Act exist—for example, during the rental or sale of a single-family home without a broker, or housing operated by members-only private clubs—these exemptions do not apply to Mang Tha. Thus, the Mang Tha website would never carry descriptors that remotely resemble the ones below:
Obviously these don’t come from a realtor’s office, but it should be equally obvious that these signs aren’t from the United States. The United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, does not have a Fair Housing Act—or at least it lacks a housing policy that prohibits discrimination by national origin or religion. So these want-ads from light poles on the streets of Abu Dhabi are permissible, or at least they were during my 2009 visit.
While fair housing advocates in the US would have no difficulty putting the kibosh on housing that refuses certain ethnicities, a culturally proficient company that serves its base is simply a demonstration of the free market at work. And it wouldn’t be the first time metro Indianapolis has witnessed it. I blogged a few years ago about the large Sikh population in the suburb of Greenwood. While I see little evidence that Sikhs are moving to the US as political refugees, something must explain why a few thousand families have settled in what formerly was a lily-white municipality. I speculated back then—and continue to believe—that a particularly talented and savvy Punjabi-born realtor, Beenu Sikand, has helped to foment the network that impelled Sikhs from California to discover central Indiana as an attractive and much, much cheaper place to live. The fruit of Ms. Sikand’s labors, as a realtor and (according to the Indianapolis Star), a “translator, tour guide and Indianapolis ambassador” is the atypical concentration of Sikhs living in Greenwood, particularly in a particular new, large residential development, where, by some estimates, they comprise over 60% of the homeowners:
And, not surprisingly, the surrounding shopping centers reflect this growing Indian presence:
Like Beenu Sikand’s thriving operation, Mang That Real Estate is a manifestation of escalating diversity—the growing demand for a niche, culturally proficient business. Prospective homeowners of Burmese/Chin descent may not be fully attuned to what is expected in buying an American home, what features are most coveted in housing, or which neighborhoods might be ideal. And many of them probably also lack fluency with English, so they may prefer to communicate in one of the Kukish languages spoken back in the Myanmar motherland, especially for a decision as critical as buying a new home. While Mang Tha Real Estate most likely disproportionately serves Indianapolis’ Burmese clientele, nothing prevents other cultures or ethnic groups from seeking the company’s services. So while Mang Tha may not be as critical as some of the nonprofits in getting the Chin people to Indianapolis, it is likely that this small company with the distinctive little sign in an otherwise run-of-the-mill part of town is instrumental in keeping the Chin there for the long haul.