Fair Housing: A New Approach That Reduces Worry, Stress

Major Chicago broker Baird & Warner works as a partner with--rather than as an adversary of--a local fair housing advocacy group.

April 1, 1997

Baird & Warner Inc., a Chicago-based brokerage with 32 offices, worked hard over the years to obey both the letter and the spirit of the fair housing law. Even so, the company found that its compliance with the law was continually being scrutinized through testing by local fair housing organizations.

"We were constantly looking over our shoulder out of concern that someone would either create a situation to cause us to stumble or discover us making a human mistake," notes Jennifer Alter Warden, director of marketing for the company, which has 1,000 salespeople in metropolitan Chicago.

After much discussion, the company in 1995 signed an agreement with a major Chicago-based fair housing organization, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. The agreement makes the two entities fair housing allies rather than adversaries. The partnership between a private brokerage and a fair housing advocacy organization is unique, according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® .

After more than a year in operation, the pact has helped the cause of fair housing and also made life easier for salespeople, according to Baird & Warner. When salespeople have complicated fair housing questions, they can turn to the Leadership Council for authoritative answers. The relationship has reduced uncertainty in the lives of salespeople and allowed them to concentrate on selling--without worrying that they inadvertently might be breaking the law.

The agreement has also been productive for the Leadership Council, which is oriented toward accomplishing fair housing in the community through education and cooperation where possible, says John Lukehart, council vice president. "We see confrontation only as a last resort," he says. Establishing cooperative agreements with individual brokerages like Baird & Warner is another way for the council to reach its goal, he says.

Baird & Warner, which has been in business for 142 years, is proud of its tradition of operating with a long-range view. "We've found over the years that doing the 'right thing' is a highly effective long-term strategy," says Warden. "Although it's hard to measure the tangible benefits of the agreement on a day-to-day basis, we believe that we're doing the right thing and that this will ultimately strengthen our business."

Under the pact, Baird & Warner agreed to

  • Designate an equal opportunity officer with specific duties
  • Develop an equal opportunity procedures manual dealing with specific fair housing issues and make it available to all salespeople and employees
  • Develop an employment program to achieve a racially and ethnically diverse workforce at all levels of the company
  • Adhere to fair housing advertising guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Develop an aggressive marketing program to maximize housing options for all buyers and minimize racial steering possibilities, and specifically record those activities

For its part, the Leadership Council agreed, among other things, to assist Baird & Warner in answering fair housing questions and in training the salespeople and other employees.

Stephen W. Baird, president of Baird & Warner, spoke recently with Walt Albro, associate editor of Today's REALTOR®, about the agreement and its positive impact.

Why did Baird & Warner sign this agreement?

In the past, real estate professionals and fair housing groups have sometimes been at loggerheads. That doesn't make sense. After all, we both have the same goals: to provide housing in a nondiscriminatory way. Why not work together to achieve that goal? We decided to create a dialogue before a complaint or a lawsuit cropped up.

Have you reduced legal problems because of the agreement?

Trying to reduce legal problems wasn't our goal. Baird & Warner didn't spend a lot of time in court in the past, and we don't have a lot of legal problems today. Yes, we want to avoid litigation because it doesn't necessarily solve anything. We think it's more effective to work together with a fair housing group to find solutions to possible problems before they develop into issues that land in the courtroom.

If there's a problem, we want to figure out ways to prevent it from happening again. We might, for example, discover that the cause of a particular problem is that salespeople aren't receiving enough of the right kind of training. The solution is to work together to provide the training.

What's an example of how Baird & Warner has worked with the Leadership Council to find solutions to a problem before it mushroomed?

In recent years, our company has been doing more relocation work. During this time, clients have become much more demanding. The relocation companies have been passing on the demands of their clients. At one point, they were requesting to work with particular types of salespeople. It wasn't as overt as saying, "I want to work only with a white salesperson," but it was close to that.

We were concerned that we might be violating fair housing laws by agreeing to some of those requests. We talked with members of the Leadership Council, and they suggested that we do some education work with the relocation companies. That helped.

What has Baird & Warner got out of this agreement?

First, it has allowed us to retain our leadership position on fair housing. Baird & Warner has a long tradition of being out in front on this issue. For example, when my father ran the company back in the 1960s, he was an early supporter of fair housing, which back then was called "open occupancy."

Second, the agreement has increased company awareness of the issue. In the past when salespeople ran into a complex fair housing situation, they didn't know where to go for the answers. Now, with increased training, our salespeople can recognize a problem, and they know there's a resource available to give them answers.

New Fair Housing Partnership With HUD: How It Helps You

Baird & Warner did it. They took a creative approach to tackling fair housing problems.

More companies in the future may be doing the same, thanks to a new partnership agreement signed last December by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

The Fair Housing Partnership Agreement replaces the Voluntary Affirmative Marketing Agreement, or VAMA, which had been in operation since 1975. It's designed to solve fair housing problems through training and voluntary compliance.

The new agreement is more flexible, according to NAR officials. It marks a shift away from simply "telling real estate practitioners what to do" and toward making REALTORS® partners with the government in the search for fair housing solutions.

The partnership relaxes requirements that REALTORS® adopt a prescribed set of association-wide or company-wide fair housing procedures, and instead encourages members to develop their own consistent fair housing procedures.

How will the agreement impact the average broker? Brokers will have more latitude to develop their own individualized fair housing plans and procedures. They're free to implement the plan they think is best for them.

One other benefit: As brokers and REALTOR® associations establish new and closer relationships with communities, governmental agencies, and fair housing advocacy groups, it's expected that a larger number of complicated or difficult fair housing questions will be resolved through discussion rather than litigation.

For more information about the Fair Housing Partnership Agreement, call Fred Underwood at NAR's Washington office, 202/383-1132. To read an interview with Michele Smith, chair of NAR's Equal Opportunity Committee, see page 19.

Walt Albro is a former senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine.

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