April is Fair Housing Month. How to handle a sensitive topic with grace

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Did you know that instances of the illegal practice of “redlining” have been documented within just the past decade? We are not talking about 60 years ago. We are talking about now.

Shockingly, we do not have to look at data prior to federal fair housing laws in 1968 to find occurrences. See the Department of Justice’s Combatting “Redlining” Initiative, which has secured over $107 million in relief for communities of color for modern-day instances of unfair housing. 

Yes, we have fair housing laws now, with the most monumental beginning in 1968, spurred by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination. However, laws are not Disney magic. In other words, laws did not instantly mean all violations would stop.

Laws simply mean that if someone is caught and there is enough evidence, that person may face some penalty. The same applies to illegal, unfair housing practices.

Thus, it would be wise to have a fair housing edition of “the talk” with your homeowner clients. I know many think of the birds and the bees when we say “the talk,” but there is another talk that is key for fair housing.

Do you know how to help your clients avoid redlining and other forms of unfair housing (including unfair lending)? 

As real estate professionals, we are often our clients’ first and sole trusted advisers. Thus, it is key that we proactively “school” them on what fairness in real estate looks like before it happens.

1. Tell clients that it is illegal to exclude (or be excluded) based on any legally protected class

Federally, we have the big seven protected groups: race, religion, national origin, color, sex, disability and familial status. Local governments may also include designations like “military status” or “returning citizen.”

Let’s not take for granted what our clients know. Share the ever-expanding laws that apply to your area by connecting with your local fair housing center.

Here’s data showing that, though homes should be appraised for more over the past few years due to how quickly the market has appreciated, some sellers may be illegally lowballed (given a value that’s lower than comparables support) based on a protected class. 

Plus, here are some first-hand accounts:

Let’s help sellers decode unfair housing (and lending) like low appraisals before they happen.

2. Share the comps for their area

Whether you work with homebuyers or sellers, one of your first appointments should review what homes in the area are selling for. Review trends such as now versus six months ago versus one to five years ago. When clients know “the comps,” not only are their expectations better informed, but they can also be more alert to unfair practices.

Thankfully, Dr. Shani Mott, a history educator at Johns Hopkins University, and her family were well aware of their local market values. They got a second appraisal, approximately $250,000 more than the original quote. 

Tip: Providing annual area comps for past clients creates goodwill and keeps us top-of-mind for future real estate deals.

Yet, not every homeowner has this information handy depending on their day-to-day activities (including any health challenges and family obligations) and career focus. Unfortunately, Dr. Mott was battling cancer at the time, which recently claimed her life. 

“The function, the very serious function of racism [I will broaden this to any form of discrimination], is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” –Toni Morrison, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner

Dr. Shani Mott spent her last days dreaming of a time when her family and anyone after her would have more standardized remedies in place. It’s a travesty that her attention was divided and even distracted by dealing with a low home valuation.

Thankfully, some of the reforms in the past few years are helping to improve homeseller experiences. Now, sadly, but in honor of her determination, we can add the informally coined “Shani Law” to our advocacy. 

Tip: Inform clients that there is currently no nationwide policy to contest a home valuation. This is where continued advocacy becomes vital.


3. Explain, encourage, and be open to beta testing

With the low appraisal example, “staging” a home for an appraisal may mean having a person of an opposite protected class standing in for the actual homeowner. That would look like a Christian for Muslim, able-bodied for differently abled, DINK (dual income couple with no kids) for a family of five, male for female, and so forth. 

Of course, staging a home should only entail neutralizing the property, not the people who own it. However, since the 1940s and 1950s, often the only way that unfair housing (and lending, including lowballed appraisals) can be determined is if testers (similar to secret shoppers) of a differing protected class step in and pretend to be the client.

Testers may reveal problematic, unfair housing (and lending), such as low appraisals, steering, redlining, denial of services or accommodations and the like.

4. Encourage clients to report concerns or issues

If your client’s spidey senses are tingling due to possible illegal treatment, encourage them to go with their intuition and document and report any instances of unfair housing. Often, the reason unfair housing can continue unchecked is because it is not reported.

The National Fair Housing Alliance has estimated that though there are upward of 30,000 reports of housing discrimination annually, that is likely only 1 percent of actual fair housing violations.

If your clients are not sure if their spidey senses are on point and need a consult before going straight to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or your local fair housing center (where things can get real, fast), start with a consult with lower stakes by going to either of the following resources:

Dr. Lee Davenport is a real estate coach/educator and author (of including Be a Fair Housing D.E.C.O.D.E.R. and How to Profit with Your Personality). Dr. Lee trains real estate agents around the globe on how to work smarter with their unique personalities and how to “advocate, not alienate,” so everyone has access and opportunity in real estate.

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