A little over a year ago, Ryan Conrad, CEO of the Lehigh Valley Association of REALTORS®, Pa., got a phone call that made him clear his calendar and convene his executive committee: Twenty-four members were on the verge of being prosecuted for Fair Housing Act violations as part of an undercover testing project by the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia.
“We immediately went into crisis management mode,” says Conrad. “The results of the testing were not good and we felt strongly that one alleged violation is one too many.” In fact, the report concluded that 73 percent of the time, testers posing as home buyers or renters experienced disparate treatment by REALTORS® either in person or by phone. “I was really surprised by the results,” recalls Conrad. “It was like a bomb was dropped on us.”
Alan Jennings, executive director at the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, the organization that requested the fair housing testing, demanded a meeting with association leadership and their attorney. He warned that the testing findings were so bad it would make national news. Conrad, who had been on the job for only four months at that time, convinced Jennings to sit down with him first to talk.
Jennings assured Conrad that his organization wanted, above all else, to correct the behavior they found among the REALTORS® and not just gain media attention for their own organization. “This set the stage for everything going forward,” explains Conrad.
After a series of eight meetings with Jennings that included association leadership, the Allentown chapter of the NAACP, area community organizers and pastors, and the mayor of Allentown, they outlined a plan forgoing prosecution in favor of education.
“We felt it was really important to come to the table with constructive solutions,” says Conrad, who worked with Fred Underwood, the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ director of diversity and community outreach, to flesh out the education program that had as its goal reinforcement of a zero-tolerance policy on noncompliance with the Fair Housing Act.
The plan includes:
- A broker-pledge action plan, whereby all brokers are asked to sign a pledge reaffirming their commitment to fair housing. They receive a certificate to hang in their office and are e-mailed fair housing-related materials, such as topics and scenarios, to talk about at monthly agent meetings.
- A fair housing publication for consumers on their fair housing expectations and rights.
- The formation of an association diversity task force, made up of minority members of the association to address issues as they arise and monitor education efforts.
- A local Allentown fair housing promotional event.
- A fair housing awareness event to highlight how the association and its members are advocates of fair housing.
Since the launch of the action plan last November, more than half of the association’s brokers have signed the pledge, and both members and brokerages have requested more information on fair housing, especially the actual scenarios of Fair Housing Act violations from the initial report.
Some members in LVAR leadership were initially defensive about the testing findings and being “targeted” by community groups, notes Conrad. But when the education plan was positioned not as an admission of guilt, but as a reaffirmation of REALTORS®’ core beliefs in fair housing, leadership had no trouble buying in.
“Agents are on their toes more,” says Conrad. “They are wondering if they’re being tested and we get regular calls from agents who say, ‘I think I’m being tested. What do I do?’” Resources for members are posted on the association’s Web site.
Conrad frequently details the survey’s findings at brokerage visits. The specific fair housing violations included instances where white buyers who specifically requested to live within the city of Allentown were shown properties in the more white suburbs, whereas minority buyers, who requested to live outside of the city were shown properties in minority-dominated downtown Allentown.
In other instances, minority buyers were shown fewer properties than white buyers with the same needs and minorities were asked for identification and financial qualifications more often than white buyers. Agents also were alleged to have violated fair housing rules by sharing their personal opinions of the quality of the Allentown schools and the level of crime in the city to white buyers but not to minority buyers.
In the end, no agents were prosecuted and the impact on the public perception of REALTORS® in the area was minimal, says Conrad. “But this could happen anywhere,” he cautions. To help other organizations get out in front of this issue, Conrad has been speaking at other associations in his state and he offers all REALTOR® associations his fair housing materials on request (contact firstname.lastname@example.org).