Are We Fair Enough?

From the NAR President: Let's recommit to setting a tone of equal professional service in the real estate industry.

July 1, 2006

When asked to violate the federal fair housing law and his own sense of ethics, Troy Brown literally walked away. Last year, Brown, 38, an associate with Weichert, REALTORS®–Columbus Associates, outside Raleigh, N.C., was working with a relocating buyer who asked for information on the racial makeup of a neighborhood in an effort to avoid the “high crime rates” of neighborhoods with a “large population of people other than white.”

Brown politely and repeatedly refused the buyer’s request, eventually turning away the business.

“I’ve never been treated so badly by anyone, and yet [Brown] never raised his voice,” the buyer wrote in a complaint letter to Brown’s broker. The buyer wanted Brown’s head on a platter. What he got instead was an emphatic defense of Brown by broker Paul Smith.

A few years earlier, in a suburb of Detroit, Mich., Stacy Peardon, 29, of Keller Williams Realty Great Lakes helped a fair housing organization track down residents who threatened her as she showed a home to African-American buyers.

Brown, Smith, and Peardon are role models for how to confront discrimination. But a new report charges that our industry as a whole isn’t living up to their standard.

The National Fair Housing Alliance, a consortium of nonprofit fair housing organizations, says that, while practitioners understand their obligations under the Fair Housing Act, some choose to put themselves and their companies at risk by failing to comply with the law.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development contracted with NFHA to test how real estate companies treated white buyers vs. equally qualified African-American or Latino buyers.

HUD had conducted tests in 2000 and found a pattern of steering it wished to investigate further. Between 2003 and 2005, NFHA conducted 145 tests of real estate offices in the Northeast, South, and Midwest that HUD suspected of discrimination.

NFHA says testers who viewed homes with a practitioner were often steered to neighborhoods on the basis of their race, national origin, and even, in a few cases, religion—and practitioners sometimes discouraged whites from buying in certain school districts while offering no such warnings to African-American and Latino buyers.

As a result of the tests, NFHA has filed nine complaints against real estate companies in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Mobile, Ala., and Westchester County, N.Y.

Reading the NFHA report, it’s clear that many associates identified as having engaged in steering felt they were doing a service to buyers by providing unasked-for advice. Others no doubt thought they were helping protect their community’s property values.

But that line of thinking is insidious, because when we think of and speak of factors such as race, ethnicity, and national origin as having a material impact on values, we make it so. We also break the law and violate Article 10 of the REALTOR® Code of Ethics.

I call on brokers to recommit to setting a tone of equal professional service in their office. And I call on sales associates to recognize that their assumptions about buyers’ needs—and their personal biases—must be checked at the door. Allowing biases to influence actions is bad for us, our industry, and our communities.

Let’s all be like Brown, Smith, and Peardon and be known as the champions of equal opportunity for all.