48: Fair Housing
Education is a great place to start with fair housing, because there are some very clear do’s and don’ts when it comes to how you can help your clients.
About This Episode
Ensuring equal opportunity for housing has always been central to real estate. Since 1968, it's also been law with the enactment of the Fair Housing Act. This episode looks at common fair housing violations, the necessity of the laws, and how every agent can ensure that they're providing an equal real estate experience.
For further reading, check out Newsday's 2019 investigation about bias in Long Island here.
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JON: In an ideal world, everyone would get along in perfect harmony and there wouldn’t be any conflict - especially when shopping for a new house or helping your clients find the home of their dreams. In actuality, humans are complicated creatures and America is full of different voices, backgrounds, ideologies, and interests. That diversity is one of the things that makes our country so great, and not just preserving that diversity but protecting it is the responsibility of every working real estate agent.
JON: Hello and welcome to Shop Talk: The Real Estate Show. I’m Jon Forisha, and on this episode we dive into the history and necessity of America’s Fair Housing laws.
JON: First of all, a little on what fair housing even is: it’s the belief that everyone has a right to adequate housing simply because they’re a human being. If you can afford it, then it could be yours, regardless of your race, religion, gender, nationality, or disability.
JON: The Fair Housing Act consists of Acts VIII and IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, passed by President LBJ during the riots that resulted from Martin Luther King Jr’s assasssination. Like most landmark legislation, this one has been amended over the ensuing decades, but this was one of the first times a non-discriminatory housing law was put into effect on a federal level.
JON: Though the Fair Housing Act took a big step toward making housing discrimination illegal, it’s up to real estate agents to ensure that their practice and community is in accordance with fair housing standards.
JON: The National Association of REALTORS® deemed fair housing such an important topic that they named April Fair Housing Month. That puts it right up there with agent safety for the month of September, and having a whole 30 days to focus on each topic is meant to drive home just how important they are for every licensed agent, regardless of their market or their clientele.
JON: NAR has a Fair Housing Action Plan, abbreviated ACT, which emphasizes Accountability, Culture Change, and Training in order to ensure that their 1.4 million members are protecting housing rights. The plan includes extra fair housing education and unconscious-bias training as a way of stomping out discrimination in housing. And education is a great place to start with fair housing, because there are some very clear do’s and don’ts when it comes to how you can help your clients.
JON: For instance, it’s not okay for an agent to take an Italian client to only predominantly Italian neighborhoods. Even if they ask to be shown the Italian neighborhoods in particular, an agent must refuse because it’s potentially drawing on the agent’s conscious or unconscious biases. If the client does their own research, however, and says this neighborhood is the one I’m interested in, an agent is of course able to make it happen. It’s that subtle but powerful distinction of the client making the decision to narrow down their search versus the agent doing it for them - which goes back to the agent isn’t the one buying the property. You as an agent may have a good understanding of what your client wants, but you of course cannot make the decision for them.
JON: A common violation of fair housing laws comes in the form of advertising. Seemingly innocuous terms like “sports-minded,” “senior,” or “bachelor apartment” frame a property in too restricted of a view. Even if you as the agent think of a property as the perfect bachelor apartment, the couple you sell it to may not and could be turned off to the prospect by your wording. Keep your advertising factual and inclusive and try not to limit the scope of your potential buyer too much.
JON: Guaranteeing that a house falls within a certain school district can cause trouble if district lines are redrawn or enrollment rules change, because then your client can hold you liable. Discussing crime in a neighborhood can also lead to a fair housing violation, and it’s a good rule of thumb to simply refer your clients to the police department or other reputable sources of crime statistics instead of drawing on your own experience.
JON: As with most protective laws, many fair housing rules arose from lawsuits. As the owner of your own business, the word lawsuit can keep you up at night, and for good reason. No one wants to get sued, especially over not taking adequate care with sensitive wording.
JON: A smart agent would do well to advise but not lecture, and to listen to your client more than you speak. By truly understanding what they’re looking for, you can help them find the perfect home without assuming and pigeonholing them based on their appearance or perceived identity.
JON: After the break, we talk about the necessity of defining fair housing in legislation.
JON: Are you listening to all of this talk on fair housing and thinking to yourself, I can do this. You understand the laws and, more importantly, you understand real estate. Maybe you’re toiling away at an IT job or struggling as a teacher while your district tries to figure out how to safely go back to school. With The CE Shop, you can complete your education from the comfort of your home and start a new career in just a few short weeks. Right now you can save 25% on your online courses with the promo code SHOPTALK.
JON: Hey, Zach. Thanks for joining me.
ZACH: Thank you for having me.
JON: Glad you came back.
ZACH: Of course.
JON: Okay. So as far as fair housing, why do fair housing laws matter?
ZACH: Fair housing laws matter because they provide an equal and fair housing environment, regardless of who they are, where they come from, where this color of their skin, it's a moral and ethical duty of an agent to follow these laws and in doing so you create a diverse and thriving community, which in turn betters your town, as a whole.
JON: Okay. So the laws are there to just sort of enforce what every agent should be doing. Isn't it enough, just to say, don't do bad things?
ZACH: You know, this brings us back to the whole good person, bad argument within societies. Well, exactly what is good and exactly what is bad? It's common, for instance, for Inuit tribes up north to commit senicide with their elders, once they can not be productive enough for them, that's part of life. If you cannot produce, we don't have the resources, resources, or means to support you. Here's an ice raft to nowhere. For us, this is terrifying. We would never do this. And that's because we have the means to do so. The fair housing laws break this philosophical quandary and produce what's known as a standard for how you should operate as an agent. While we may think that we're what we're doing is good, it may not always translate into what is actually acceptable. This allows us for an impartial home transaction process that takes away a potential misuse of power, even when it's done accidentally or with good intentions.
JON: So what are some common fair housing violations?
ZACH: The most common fair housing violation deals with disability and the lack of accommodations for this protected class. However, for real estate agents in general they're more likely to commit one of the following, which would be advertising in a discriminatory manner, racial steering, or any type of steering, and then providing lesser different, certain level of service.
JON: And you mentioned protected classes. What exactly is a protected class?
ZACH: A protected class is a set of groups protected from the employment discrimination bylaws. So federal housing laws prohibit discrimination based on seven protected classes, which have over the last like 30 years, they have passed laws including all of these. These would include race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability. Now many states and local jurisdictions have other ones, other additional protected classes that work with that area. So, you know, if you are an agent and you were worried about this, you should be checking in with your local government and finding out what, what those classes may be.
JON: Okay. And then steering, what exactly is steering?
ZACH: Steering refers to the practice in which real estate brokers guide prospective home buyers towards their way from certain neighborhoods based on how they identify. The biggest problem with this practice is how it limits opportunity for protected classes, as well as decreases diversity within neighborhoods. This leads to a segment of neighborhoods that ended up receiving disproportionate local funding for schools, parks, and other public items. With all this being said, it should be noted that the majority of real estate agents naturally follow these laws. It's one of the many reasons why agents are considered to be leaders of their community. However, regardless of the law of the land, steering and other bias practices still do happen and they hinder our ability as a society to create an environment that is fair to everyone as agents. It is necessary to combat these actions if they are seemingly innocuous.
JON: Yeah, for sure. So many people seek their agent's knowledge about an area or a neighborhood, but fair housing laws prohibit them from identifying, for instance, the Italian neighborhood. How can agents still be an asset to their clients without violating these laws?
ZACH: It comes down to a few things. One of which is discovering their needs and wants as a person or family. These include the best schools, restaurants, location, parks, and the list goes on. But at the end of the day, you want to have them go do the research, allow them to come to you with the area they want. It allows for a better home buying experience.
JON: All right, Zach. Well, thanks for joining me.
ZACH: Thank you.
JON: Some people may hear all of the fair housing laws and stipulations and roll their eyes at the political correctness of it all. We received some comments to that effect on a recent blog we made about racial steering and how to avoid it - agents saying they’ve been in the business for decades and have never seen evidence that steering actually exists.
JON: But that’s the thing about discrimination: it isn’t always laid bare before you. Some of it can be unconscious bias or an honest mistake with no intended disrespect. But to think that this isn’t still happening - somewhere in this large and diverse country of ours - is wishful thinking. America has a long history of inequality and racism, and our fair housing laws are one of the ways that we, as real estate professionals, can do our part to ensure that it goes no further.
JON: In November 2019, Newsday released a sweeping report of their findings over a three-year long probe into real estate practices around Long Island. We’ve linked to their article in our show notes, and I recommend reading it for real-world examples of how modern agents are skirting past fair housing laws or sometimes blatantly ignoring them.
JON: I’ve also seen agents offended by the accusatory nature of these laws, thinking that in some way agents are being told they’re responsible for segregating communities. That’s not at all the case; some bad agents have surely contributed to segregation, but much of it is societal and historical and a much more complicated topic for real estate agents to tackle. Why someone chooses to live where they do can sometimes be a mystery, as every experienced agent has surely seen for themself.
JON: The laws have been put in place not to accuse agents of doing these things, but to ensure that they don’t. For many of us, it can seem like common sense not to assume that we know where our client wants to live just because they look a certain way, but that’s not how laws work. Additional education on the laws make every agent give these topics a bit more thought and consideration than they normally would, which can only result in we as an industry and as a society taking one step closer to that utopian world where we can all live in perfect harmony - in exactly the right home for each of us.
JON: That’s it for this episode, thanks for listening! If you enjoyed the talk, please leave us a review on your podcast player of choice, subscribe to us, and share us with a friend. Shop Talk is a production of The CE Shop.