When clients hear broker Jackie Roth speak, they assume — correctly — that English is her second language.
Some presume — incorrectly — that she’s from France.
“People ask where I’m from, and I say, ‘Brooklyn,’ ” and they say, ‘No, no, where are you from originally,’ and I say, ‘BROOKLYN,’ ” says Roth with a smile.
The star Douglas Elliman broker first communicated in sign language, and didn’t speak English until she was 5.
Deaf since birth, Roth is a rarity in New York’s real-estate world: a broker with a disability.
“I can’t think of any,” says Peter Slatin, the legendary real-estate writer who became a disability advocate when he lost his sight. “It’s remarkable what she’s doing.”
And she’s doing remarkably, too.
Since joining Douglas Elliman in 2006, Roth has become one of the brokerage’s Top Producers, a distinction placing her in the top 1% of the 4,000-strong agency.
Now Roth is launching a group within the company to help pair clients who have disabilities with brokers able to meet their needs.
“Because I hear differently, I see and experience the city differently, and I want to bring that experience to others to help them find a home,” Roth says.
Susan Watts/New York Daily News
Dottie Herman (r.), CEO of Douglas Elliman, says of Roth: “She’s one of my best brokers, but she’s also one of the best people I know.”
The team of brokers aims to be particularly attuned to the wants of clients with special needs. They’re even building a nationwide network to help these buyers and renters.
“It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” Douglas Elliman CEO Dottie Herman says. “She’s one of my best brokers, but she’s also one of the best people I know.”
But breaking into the industry wasn’t easy. Like with so much else in life, Ross was told she’d never make it.
“I went to another brokerage in 2005, and the manager there basically laughed in my face,” Roth says.
He told her real estate is all talk — fielding phone calls and negotiating deals. “He said, ‘How’s a deaf person gonna work the phones?’ ” Roth recalls.
She admits that a generation ago, the manager might have had a point, but now, thanks to technology, she can pull up a sign-language interpreter on her phone and video-chat in real time.
“I can do a lot just with my iPhone,” Roth says.
Roth got her first hearing aid, a sophisticated implant, as a toddler, and she was the first person in her family in three generations to learn to speak.
She grew up in Crown Heights and later in Forest Hills, Queens. Roth’s dad worked for The News setting type — the paper’s printing plant was one of the largest employers of the deaf back then.
Before real estate, Roth found her voice on the stage. After flirting with psychology in college, she joined the acting troupe at Gallaudet, the university for the deaf in Washington, D.C., and discovered she had a knack for it.
Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News
Lauren Ridloff, who like her husband, Dan, is deaf, with son Levi in the Williamsburg apartment they got with Jackie Roth’s help.
When she returned home to New York, Roth got plenty of rejections, but no more than the average actor, and she even enjoyed considerable success despite her deafness, working Off-Broadway and around the country. She did numerous commercials, most notably a national spot for Bayer aspirin in which she signs into the camera.
She even made it to Broadway in 1982, in “Children of a Lesser God,” about a romance between a deaf woman and her language teacher. Roth was the understudy for Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, and the lead in a national tour of the show. The Washington Post called her “a delicate yet determined star.”
Rather than wait tables when she wasn’t acting, Roth taught and translated sign language and was an activist. “I had to fight injustice for myself, so I wanted to fight it for others, too,” she says.
She lowered the curtain on her acting career and turned to real estate in 2005. “The city really is my first love, so there’s no better job,” Roth says.
At first, many clients came from the stage. One was Camryn Manheim, star of “The Practice.” But the two actually met during Roth’s teaching sessions. Manheim needed language credits to get into the University of California, Santa Cruz, and having failed both French and Spanish, decided on sign language.
The pair lost touch until Manheim was looking to rent out her Lower East Side loft and heard Roth was now a broker.
“She has an incredible ability to make people feel special,” Manheim says. “She sees things others don’t.”
Roth has a sixth sense for real estate, and credits her acting and lip-reading abilities for giving her an uncanny ability to read people.
“As soon as somebody walks into one of my listings, before they even open their mouths, I can tell if they’re the one,” Roth says. “It’s just screaming across their face.”
Clients like Lauren Ridloff and her husband, Dan, who are deaf, feel that were it not for Roth, they never would have landed a place.
A memento of Roth’s acting days, and one well-known TV ad in particular
“Finding an apartment in New York is hard enough as it is,” says Ridloff.
After problems with brokers over the years — getting bogged down in lengthy email correspondence or being plain turned down — the couple turned to Roth when they were ready to buy.
They wanted a home in Williamsburg and settled on a new condo, but when the recession hit, the building saw delays and construction issues. “Jackie fought so hard to get our deposit back,” Ridloff says. “Working with brokers, attorneys, it was like magic.”
The couple then settled on a red-brick rowhouse on S. Second St. There were issues with the closing, and the deal wound up in court, with Jackie seeing it through.
“Without her, we wouldn’t be homeowners today,” Ridloff says.
Douglas Elliman is hoping others will have the same experience with Roth’s new initiative, and so are prospective clients.
“So many brokers think a building is accessible because it has an elevator, but you show up and there’s two steps to get in the door,” laments Alexandra McArthur, Miss Wheelchair America 2011, who works at a disabled-advocacy group.
She and her fiancé just moved into a new apartment in Alphabet City, but they had to shell out $ 8,000 to install an automatic door. And they had to find the place on their own, since no brokers would give the months-long lead time they needed.
“Having a brokerage that really gets it would be a godsend,” McArthur says.
For Roth, it’s all in a day’s work.
“I want to be successful, I want to be a producer, but I also want to better the odds for people like me,” she says.