When the Fair Housing Act Goes Too Far: What Your Broker Can't Say

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There is a quiet hysteria brewing amongst many U.S. real estate agents. This pervasive fear stems from the idea that, based on the Fair Housing Act, real estate agents could be prosecuted or fired for answering the most fundamental, universal kinds of questions they are asked by renters and home buyers every day.
An eligible bachelor contacts a real estate agent to help him find a pad. He is looking to be surrounded

There is a quiet hysteria brewing amongst many U.S. real estate agents. This pervasive fear stems from the idea that, based on the Fair Housing Act, real estate agents could be prosecuted or fired for answering the most fundamental, universal kinds of questions they are asked by renters and home buyers every day.

An eligible bachelor contacts a real estate agent to help him find a pad. He is looking to be surrounded by other singles in a lively atmosphere. A married couple with young children wants to steer clear of rambunctious, 20-something singletons to avoid the same housing situation the bachelor craves. The corresponding inquiries ensue: “Is this place family friendly?” “Is this the kind of neighborhood where I can find a lot of young singles like myself?” These are the kinds of questions that make many real estate agents’ skin crawl.

Providing that type of information to home buyers and renters could land an agent in some serious hot water. The resulting reticence to answer these questions means home buyers and renters sometimes can’t rely on their real estate agents to do the job they appointed them to do: to answer the questions that will help them find appropriate accommodations in the type of neighborhoods that suit them and their lifestyles. In short, the law may hinder home buyers and renters in their pursuit of the kind of happiness that comes from finding the perfect home.

Fair Housing Act: Interpretation of the Law

The Fair Housing Act was created to thwart discriminatory practices in the real estate industry based on a slew of categories that includes race, religion, sex and familial status. The intent of the law is good, right and just. According to the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, their policies “make sure all Americans have equal access to the housing of their choice.”

But what happens when interpretation of the Fair Housing Act law prevents Americans from finding the housing of their choice in the first place? I interviewed a veteran real estate agent on the topic who wishes to remain anonymous. We’ll call her Kira.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

One purpose of the fair housing act law is to put a stop to racial steering, which is the practice of guiding home buyers and renters towards some neighborhoods and away from others based on race. Kira says, “I think the intention of the law is very good -- to discourage people from discriminating. But I think the intensity with which they try to enforce it is a disservice to their efforts, because one of the main reasons why clients hire brokers is they want brokers’ knowledge and insight. And that insight includes demographics.”

Kira explains that, in some cases, clients want to be racially steered (and more often than not, steered based on familial status.) She tells me many brokers unofficially specialize in ethnic placement to help non-English speaking clients find their home away from home among others of their nationality. “A lot of brokers have a niche market of serving minorities. If there was a Chinese broker with Chinese agents and they serve a mostly Chinese clientele, it would be tough to prove discrimination because it would be human nature to want to be around people who speak your language.” She says the Fair Housing Act attempts to impose guidelines to curb this human nature, which is an extremely touchy outcome in the world of fair housing laws.

Kira says, “People want to work with people who are their same background, and it’s a trend some cultures tend to meander into.” For better or worse, this trend can lead to neighborhoods’ harboring certain demographic concentrations and income levels. This runs counter to the grain of the idealists' view of the perfect melting pot, an American landscape of patchwork neighborhoods harboring all classes and cultures.

Kira adds, “To prohibit a broker from giving the client knowledge that they are requesting, even if it’s illegal, I think it’s wrong. If a client wants to live in a certain neighborhood with certain demographics, with certain qualifications like children or no children, or not too many teenagers, then I think brokers should be allowed to discuss the knowledge they have on that and help them.” Kira feels the law can “limit our rights as citizens” by making it illegal to talk about the kind of community where one wants to live.

Continued on Page 2

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