Beyond intent: What agents get wrong about fair housing


Fair housing isn’t just about what you mean to do, writes Lee Davenport. It’s also about the effect your action (or lack thereof) have on hopeful homeowners.

Between social media comments and the classes I teach, I keep running across people — more specifically, those of us who should be the most well-versed, the real estate professionals — who see unfair housing as only an intent issue. They believe that people must be “targeted” for it to count.

This is not the case. This is a broad and complex issue that takes thoughtful consideration and application to advocate for all people in all transactions.  Let’s take a look at some examples of comments I often get on my social media posts, illustrating the confusion some agents have around unfair housing.

Perhaps you do, too, so let’s review.

It is more than intent

Author’s note: I appreciate fair housing questions and comments via social media, especially from real estate professionals, because if we don’t understand, how can we possibly help our neighbors?

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I explained to this engaged commenter that in addition to “targeted” intent, disparate impact is also a factor. In short, when our neighbors believe they are experiencing unfair housing, it is not our job to deny their experiences but rather to give them the resources to report it, as there may be more than meets the eye.

Yes, there have been real estate professionals in the last three years (forget going back decades ago) who boldly proclaim their disdain for others like this and this — just two unfortunate examples. In those instances, intent drips through their blatant word choices.

It’s also about impact

Housing policies and practices that seem fair on the surface without malicious intent may actually cause harm disproportionately to a protected class of people (keeping in mind that protected classes expand from time to time at the federal or local levels so think beyond the “big 7”). We also call this an adverse impact.

In short, everyone should have a fair shot at the American dream of homeownership and when there are practices or policies that stand in the way, even if unintentional, something has got to give. 

Without getting into the legalese, the disparate impact rule codified long-standing case law in 2013 (with changes made in 2020 but reverted back to the 2013 version earlier this year). In essence, case law dating back to the civil rights movement set a legal precedent and supported unfair housing being determined by both intent and disparate impact.

Furthermore, this has been an official rule for approximately a decade (despite recent modifications) – I’ll repeat: a decade. Nevertheless, like the commenter above, this is often what I hear real estate pros get wrong. 

And, if we, as the professionals who do this for a living, don’t understand the intricacies of fair housing, how can we possibly help our neighbors? How can they possibly have confidence in our profession?

Learning to decode 

Let’s start with committing to be a fair housing decoder (which is an acronym for what I call fair housing advocacy) when it comes to disparate impact, starting with the three following ways:

  1. Encourage self-audits: The second “d” in fair housing decoder stands for “Debbie Downer assessor,” which encourages us, before violating fair housing (or lending), to do a self-assessment. Check out these two Canadian banks that have pledged to self-audit going forward. That is a powerful starting point. Here in the States, our teams, companies and associations can elect to self-audit by partnering with national (like the NCRC and NFHA) and local fair housing and lending agencies. What this does is flip and reverse the all too common adage to “ask for forgiveness, not permission.”
  2. Encourage local and state legislative support: The “c” in fair housing decoder stands for “community supporter,” which encourages us as real estate pros to do what we do best: Be our hometown homeownership champion. Plus, with Realtors being the largest lobbying spending group around, there is no reason that states like Missouri should be able to interfere with fair housing (in this instance, since 2017) and hinder much-needed national funding. Plus, in the face of a tarnished reputation and brand, fair housing legislation (both the upholding and expansion) can be the A1 mission to begin to rebuild trust in Realtors as genuine “community supporters.”
  3. Make fair housing part of your regular content: The “r” in fair housing decoder stands for “reporter.” As real estate pros, we are well acquainted with wearing many hats, from unofficial construction contractors to negotiators to even pop psychologists, and many of us fill the role of reporter well. As we enter 2024, I challenge you to include at least one post, blog or video each week about fair housing. By the end of 2024, you will have started at least 52 conversations on this important topic. What can you share? There are expansions to fair housing laws it seems each year like this, which are great to discuss. There are violations that can be pointed out, like this. And, of course, we can discuss and define terms, to normalize them, like this.
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Community comment from a post using a metaphor to help explain “redlining.” Google is good, but it’s better when we, as real estate pros, are the trusted sources.

Beyond intent

 “I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”

Coretta Scott King

Being open to learning and continuing the conversation are two of the most important things we can do as an industry. Helping our neighbors — all of our neighbors — is our duty. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or even ask for clarification.

Lee Davenport is a licensed real estate broker, trainer and coach. Follow her on YouTube or visit her website.





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