The aim of the Fair Housing Act is simple: to prevent discrimination in housing-related matters. People should have equal access to housing and housing-related services regardless of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. Realizing that goal, though, has proven challenging. Unfair practices—on purpose and unintentional—persist that lead to detrimental effects on individuals, families, and communities. Through training, awareness, and action, REALTORS® can lead the effort to ensure the Fair Housing Act achieves the objectives laid out more than 50 years ago.
An Investigation Reveals Troubling Practices
An investigative report aired in November 2019 by Newsday garnered attention in the real estate industry and beyond. The three-year probe took place on Long Island, New York, and provides insights into ways real estate brokerages and agents engaged in practices that showed evidence of unequal treatment.
View Newsday’s Investigation
Newsday has published an extensive interactive article about its investigation outside its paywall. You can also find the full 41-minute documentary about the three-year investigation on that page.
The investigation relied on pairs of testers to assess whether real estate agents were treating people unfairly. Paired testing—often used by fair housing advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice and local governmental authorities—can reveal methods of housing discrimination that are more subtle than obvious violations.
The testers were actors who were given details to memorize about their lives and situations. Testers in a pair presented themselves with similar circumstances, such as financial situation and housing-related requests; however, race or ethnicity among a pair of testers was different.
The testers visited 93 agents in 12 different brokerages on Long Island. They secretly recorded 240 hours of interactions. Experiences for the two testers in a pair were compared to note disparate treatment.
Unequal treatment of minorities was observed in 40% of the tests.
- Asian testers received unequal treatment 19% of the time
- Hispanic testers received unequal treatment 39% of the time
- Black testers received unequal treatment 49% of the time.
Examples of how agents treated testers differently included:
- Asking a minority tester to get preapproved before showing that tester homes, while not requiring pre-
approval from a similar white tester.
- Steering the two testers in a pair to different communities despite the testers presenting the same requirements and goals.
- Requesting ID from a minority tester without asking for ID from a white tester.
- Providing information about crime or ethnic makeup of neighborhoods only to the white tester in a pair.
Often in the tests, the actions of an agent were not indicative of a fair housing violation when viewed in isolation. Unequal treatment only became apparent when comparing the experiences of the two testers in a pair. For example, it is not a violation to ask a buyer to get prequalified for a mortgage prior to showing that person homes if the agent asks that of all buyers. It becomes a fair housing issue when the agent makes showing homes conditional on prequalification based on one of the protected classes, like race.
The investigation also found problems with fair housing training for agents and brokers on Long Island. Newsday reporters visited six training sessions and showed notes and transcripts to fair housing experts. The experts deemed five of the six classes “sometimes or often inaccurate, incomplete, confusing, or lacking in quantity and quality,” according to the report.
The Basics of the Fair Housing Act
The REALTOR® Code of Ethics also includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.
Cities or other jurisdictions may include other protected classes, such as age.
When signed into law in 1968, the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination related to the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on four protected classes: race, color, religion, and national origin. An amendment in 1974 added sex as a protected class. Handicap and familial status were added in 1988.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits the following activities:
- Refusing to rent or sell housing
- Refusing to negotiate for housing
- Making housing unavailable
- Denying a dwelling
- Setting different terms, conditions, or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling
- Providing different housing services or facilities
- Falsely denying that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental
- Engaging in blockbusting practices
- Denying anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as multiple listing service) related to the sale or rent of housing
- Threatening, coercing, intimidating, or interfering with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right
- Advertising or making any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on one of the protected classes.
A New Chapter in Fair Housing Action from NAR
In January this year, National Association of REALTORS® leadership unanimously passed a fair housing action plan called ACT, which stands for Accountability, Culture change, and Training. The goal of the plan is to ensure that all REALTORS® do everything possible to protect housing rights.
The plan calls for the following:
- Work with state REALTOR® associations to ensure that state licensing laws include effective fair housing training requirements and hold real estate agents accountable to their fair housing obligations.
- Launch a public-service announcement campaign that reaffirms NAR’s commitment to fair housing, and how consumers can report problems.
- Integrate fair housing into all REALTOR® conferences and engagements.
- Explore the creation of a voluntary self-testing program, in partnership with a fair housing organization, as a resource for brokers and others who want confidential reports on agent practices so they can address problems.
- Create more robust fair housing education, including unconscious-bias training, and education on how the actions of REALTORS® shape communities.
- Conduct a national study to determine what factors motivate discrimination.
- Profile leaders who exemplify the best fair housing practices and workplace diversity.
- Develop materials to help REALTORS® provide consumers with information on schools that avoids fair housing pitfalls.
Other recent steps by NAR include creating a Fair Housing Policy Committee and hiring a longtime employee of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as its director of fair housing policy.
Training Options for Agents, Brokerages, and Local Associations
Education is one component of improving fair housing compliance. Members can locate fair housing courses through the Texas REALTORS® Find a Course tool.
Local associations of REALTORS® can schedule Texas REALTORS®-approved courses on fair housing or request approval of a new course. Contact the Professional Development Department at email@example.com or 800-873-9155.
Brokerages can also schedule training classes for their businesses by directly contacting instructors. Brokers interested in Texas REALTORS®-approved instructors can contact the Professional Development Department as well.
NAR also offers the At Home With Diversity certification as an online course.
Education, awareness, action, and an eagerness to do the right thing will ensure that the goals set out in the Fair Housing Act become a reality.
How Well Do You Know Your Fair Housing Responsibilities?
- True or False? Sex offenders are a protected class under fair housing laws.
- True or False? Fair housing laws only protect minorities within each of the protected classes.
- True or False? Local laws must not include additional protected classes that are not covered by federal law.
- True or False? Advertisements containing descriptions of properties related to accessibility (such as “fourth-floor walk-up” or “walk-in closets”), services or facilities (such as “jogging trails”), or neighborhoods (“walk to bus stop”) do not violate the Fair Housing Act.
- True or False? A landlord cannot charge a separate deposit for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation. 6. True or False? A landlord cannot request a photo ID with a lease application.
- True or False? A landlord can refuse to rent a property to a prospective tenant who smokes.
Answers: 1) False. 2) False. Fair housing laws apply to everyone based on the protected classes. 3) False. Some local laws may prohibit discrimination on characteristics such as veteran status, marital status, or student status. 4) True. Advertisements with this language would not appear to be violations of fair-housing laws based on HUD decisions. 5) True. However, the tenant would still be legally responsible for any damage caused by such an animal. 6) False. A landlord should only use an applicant’s photo ID to verify identity and/or to check on criminal history, rental history, or credit history. Landlords must be uniform and consistent, requiring it from all applicants, and never use the photo ID to discriminate against an applicant. 7) True, as long as such a prohibition is consistently enforced.