When the Fair Housing Act Goes Too Far

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Independent Thinking
The overwhelming problem with the Fair Housing Act is that it often prevents real estate agents from matching their clients with their desired housing situation because it’s illegal to answer many of their clients’ questions. Just about every home buyer is interested to know what their potential neighbors might be like, but within the construct of the law, home buyers cannot rely on a professional

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Independent Thinking

The overwhelming problem with the Fair Housing Act is that it often prevents real estate agents from matching their clients with their desired housing situation because it’s illegal to answer many of their clients’ questions. Just about every home buyer is interested to know what their potential neighbors might be like, but within the construct of the law, home buyers cannot rely on a professional real estate agent to find out. “I think what hurts is trying to granulate it down to one-on-one relationships. Independently, brokers should be allowed to discuss with their clients what their clients want to discuss, based on the client’s individual preferences,” says Kira.

In certain circumstances, Kira feels somewhat comfortable giving those prohibited answers. “If I know my client because they are a friend or a referral of a friend, then I’m much more likely to be able to talk to them candidly about fair housing laws and tell them, ‘Oh, I’m not allowed to discuss this, but I’ll give my two cents anyways,’ and feel safe that it’s not going to get out.” But like many real estate agents, she has weighty reservations about the possibility of getting nabbed for discussing forbidden topics.

When Kira isn’t personally connected with a client via friends or a referral, she practices caution. “If they asked me something anti-fair housing, I would say, ‘I’m not allowed to discuss that,’ and that would of course affect the service level I’m providing. I would tell them, ‘Hang out on a Saturday afternoon, see who is hanging out, who is watering their lawn, who is grocery shopping.’ If the buyer is interested in the neighborhood, all fair housing laws aside, the buyer should hang out there and make sure they like the feel of the area. So they can almost answer their own questions just by being more involved in the process.”

A Verbal Minefield

The Fair Housing Act extends to real estate advertising as well, a provision that Kira occasionally finds helpful. She says, “An ad can’t say anything to discourage singles, families or a certain class from wanting to live there, and I think that serves a purpose in making brokers aware when we advertise that we should try to appeal to everyone and not exclude anyone. When builders advertise new projects, they need to use diverse faces on the pictures. Put a white female or a black man or a gay person to make the ad look like it’s appealing to all people. In inspiring that idea, the law is helpful in terms of leveling the playing field.”

Even in the realm of advertising though, Kira says the law steps over the line. When she uploads her home listings to certain web engines, she is blocked from adding particular information. For example, she is barred from including neighborhood restaurants if they happen to contain an ethnicity in the name. She’s also not allowed to specify that a community is “family friendly” or that a home has an “in-law suite” or a “nanny’s bedroom.”

The law can also hinder home sales when a strict interpretation of advertising regulations prevents sellers from finding potential buyers. Kira says that some brokers won’t reveal school districts in their home listings “because they’re scared of fair housing laws. I think it’s downright irresponsible. A lot of parents search by school district, and if your seller’s house doesn’t come into the search because you didn’t list the school district, you’re doing your seller a disservice. It’s a simple fact: this house goes to this school, and people need to get over it. I think that’s one instance when they’re taking fair housing absolutely out of control.”

Concerning the inclusion of information such as neighborhood restaurants and school boards in her listings, she emphasizes, “That’s not discriminatory. It’s fact. When we’re dealing with fair housing, we have to realize that the law is trying to target the subjective nature of a certain commentary, and keeping the subjective and facts separate probably goes a long way towards helping people distinguish what is a violation of fair housing.”

The Big Picture

Despite her objections surrounding the stringent confines of the law, Kira supports the fundamental idea of the Fair Housing Act. She says, “If you look at it from a global perspective, I would venture to say that a lot of the anti-discrimination policies we’ve set forth have helped us. Equal opportunity laws are sometimes ridiculous, but the general idea is good and by and large, so are the results. On the grander scale, I think fair housing is causing more good than harm. It’s annoying. Bottom line. But in the bigger picture, it’s probably helpful.”

As for how the law can be changed to make its scope clearer, the answer might lie in adding more specific language. Kira says, “I think if a client asks you a question, you should be able to answer it. So if even if they’re going to force me to phrase it in a certain way to keep it neutral, that would be a step in the right direction.”

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