Like a Rolling Stone

Some have called it a distraction from the industrywide effort to combat systemic racism. Others have called it a potent symbol. If nothing else, the decision by the Houston Association of REALTORS® to replace two fields in its MLS—“master bedroom” and “master bathroom”—has spotlighted the rapid culture change taking place in real estate.

For more than a decade, on and off, REALTORS® in Houston had discussed whether the MLS fields should be changed to eliminate perceived sexist and racist overtones, says Houston Association of REALTORS® CEO Bob Hale. Despite a U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development opinion from 1995 saying that “master” in this context wasn’t related to race or gender and therefore wasn’t a violation of fair housing law, dissatisfaction over the term continued to surface.

As the national conversation on race and inclusivity was gaining steam in June, the issue came up again at Houston's MLS advisory group meeting. This time, the decision felt like a no-brainer. The advisory board renamed the fields “primary bedroom” and “primary bathroom” but didn’t ban the use of “master” in comments or elsewhere. “The general feeling was, ‘I may or may not be offended, but if the term gives others pause, why not go with a neutral term?'” says Matt Burrus, HAR chief communications officer.

The decision didn’t seem like a huge deal. At the same meeting, the group voted to add a field for electric car chargers and to enable agents to specify which way a balcony was facing. End of story, right?

Not quite. After news of the change spread, some observers—including composer-singer John Legend—admonished the industry for focusing on the wrong thing. It felt as though work taking place throughout the REALTOR® organization to stamp out bias might be overshadowed.

It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. We took a little pebble and rolled it down a mountain. Now the boulders are coming.

—Bob Hale, CEO, Houston Association of REALTORS®

For Hale and his team, though, there was no backing down. During the ensuing barrage of national media attention, including an inquiry from The New York Times, the team patiently provided context and reinforced the association’s commitment to fair housing and diversity. More than 15,000 members engaged in a panel discussion on HAR’s weekly Facebook Live program, “Member Focus Monday.” And the association established a diversity and inclusion task force.

More importantly, MLSs and large brokerages—including Howard Hanna, which has offices in nine states, and @properties, with offices in four states— called Hale to say they would follow suit. The Real Estate Standards Organization formed a work group that acted quickly to recommend “primary” as an optional alternative to “master.”

“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” Hale says. “We took a little pebble and rolled it down a mountain. Now the boulders are coming.”

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