Fair Housing: Facing the Pain and the Promise

The REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C., was a gathering place for reconciliation and recommitment to ending discrimination in housing.

For months leading up to the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in mid-May, talk about fair housing ramped up in association and business circles in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the federal law’s passage. Commemorations of all sorts have served as important reminders about real estate professionals’ obligation to uphold equal housing opportunities in the course of their business dealings. But as the stream of anti-discrimination missives became more and more familiar, the risk heightened that REALTORS® might start to tune out.

This year at NAR 360, the annual kickoff event for the legislative meetings in Washington, DC., the messages were impossible to ignore. The fair housing theme was presented in terms both stark and direct, giving the thousands of REALTORS® gathered in the ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel a look at the darker side of their esteemed organization’s past. A hired actor brought back to life a snippet from the Code of Ethics added in 1924 that was not fully repealed until 1974: REALTORS® “should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood ... members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”

Audience members gasped. Some REALTORS®’ eyes welled with tears. The National Association of REALTORS® laid bare that it had opposed the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

NAR Immediate Past President William E. Brown, who is African-American, recounted his family’s fair housing struggles during the gathering. His parents were consistently turned down in their efforts to purchase a home in northern California’s East Bay neighborhoods, many of which had covenants denying property to black and Asian buyers. Finally, they were successful in buying a house—a foreclosure in Oakland, Calif.—“only because they had the money to bail the owner out,” Brown said. “The issue of fair housing has touched every single person who is a minority in this country. REALTORS® can be instrumental in erasing the lines that have separated us for years.”

The General Session the following day also zeroed in on the painful past and the challenges of today, including persons with disabilities reporting the greatest share of fair housing complaints. While cases of “door slamming” by agents, “redlining” by lenders, and other blatantly exclusionary practices have dropped dramatically, subtle biases are still present every day. “It is unfathomable that our Code of Ethics once agreed with discrimination,” 2014 NAR President Steve Brown told the packed crowd at the General Session. “We will never close our eyes to discrimination again,” he added. “It is time for us not only to follow the letter of the law but to embrace the spirit of the law. Not only is it good business, but it’s the right thing to do.”

In a further reconciling of NAR’s past as it relates to fair housing, Jeffrey Hicks, president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, a trade group started by African-American practitioners in 1947, acknowledged at the General Session that “it takes a lot of courage for an organization to admit they were on the wrong side of history.”  While he noted that the country has come a long way toward “building inclusive homeownership,” much more needs to be done.

A new report, Fair Housing at 50, commissioned by NAR and released during the legislative meetings, says that black homeownership in America is at a nearly 50-year low, with rates declining precipitously since the Great Recession. In 2017, the homeownership rate for white, non-Hispanic households was 72.3 percent, compared to 41.6 for African-Americans and 46.2 percent for Hispanics.

Credit history challenges are the leading reason that minority households have difficulty borrowing money for a mortgage or obtaining optimal interest rates. “We have antiquated models as to how credit scoring is done,” said Genie Birch, CIPS, GRI, a sales associate with Century 21 Affiliated in Lincolnwood, Ill., who chairs the Multicultural Real Estate Leadership Advisory Group. “They were created in the ‘60s, when people got a job and stayed in that job until they retired. Today, that doesn’t work.” NAR supports alternative credit scoring models by HUD and the Federal Housing Finance Agency that would incorporate additional data and payment history for borrowers.

And the association is continuing to look at additional ways that REALTORS® can better serve all communities without discrimination. Drawing on focus group input from multicultural real estate practitioners, The Fair Housing at 50 report offers four challenges for how NAR, local associations, and individual REALTORS® can step up their role in promoting access to housing opportunities:

  • Increase diversity in leadership and representation at NAR and within local associations. Expanding collaborations between multicultural real estate associations and REALTOR® associations can help foster inclusion and improve diversity in leadership training programs.
  • Promote awareness of fair housing issues. NAR should continue to discuss the persistent challenges of housing discrimination and increase education among members about the state of racial segregation and economic disparities.
  • Support state and local efforts to expand housing options. Local REALTOR® associations can collaborate with other organizations to support referenda, policy recommendations, and residential projects that promote fair housing and look at the connections with school quality, healthy communities and economic opportunities.
  • Advocate for national strategies. NAR should continue its leadership role in championing policies that expand housing opportunities, reduce disparities in access to homeownership, and address persistent economic inequalities.

At the NAR Board of Directors’ meeting at the end of the week, Diversity Committee Chairman Tim Hur, ABR, CIPS, managing broker at Point Horizon Real Estate in Duluth, Ga., read a resolution commemorating the anniversary of the law and affirming NAR’s commitment to seek federal legislation providing equality in housing opportunity based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (The Code of Ethics has already added those categories to its list of protected classes.)

And while these history-making commitments to legal equality are laudable, they underscore a truth powerfully conveyed by a poet named Joseph Green at the opening session of the meetings: “Let us agree that laws are not magic, merely guidelines and aspirations, blueprints with consequences. Only the actions of people can transmogrify circumstances, correct the projection of a life’s trajectory. That’s why the motto is ‘fair housing makes us stronger,’ not ‘the fair housing act makes us stronger.’”

As difficult as it is to pass sweeping civil rights laws, changing a culture is even more complicated. The pursuit of fairness will continue as long as it has to.