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Risk Management for Real Estate Firms: How to Comply with the Fair Housing Act



Could you be accused of discrimination? The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against people engaging in housing-related activities, including renting or buying a home. In addition to the Fair Housing Act, states may have their own anti-discrimination laws. Real estate agents should be familiar with these laws and how to comply with them.


The Fair Housing Act


Under the Fair Housing Act, discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status or disability is not allowed. Although additional protections apply to federally assisted housing, the Fair Housing Act applies to most housing.


As a real estate agent, you could run afoul of the Fair Housing act if you refuse to sell or negotiate housing to someone based on a protected class, or if you otherwise make housing unavailable. You could also run into trouble if you set different terms in a discriminatory way. Other actions that can be considered discriminatory are also likely illegal.


State Fair Housing Laws


Some states have passed additional fair housing laws. Among other things, these state laws may add protected classes.


For example, according to the Fair Housing Center of Washington, marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity are also considered protected in Washington State.


The New York State Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination based on creed, age, sexual orientation, marital status or military status, along with the groups protected under the federal Fair Housing Act.


In California, state law makes it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, citizenship, immigration status, primary language, age, religion, mental or physical disability, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, family status, source of income, or military or veteran status.


These are just a few examples. Many other states have similar laws, so make sure you are familiar with the laws in any state where you do business.


Steer Clear of Lawsuits and Allegations


Even if you don’t mean to be discriminatory, common practices could land you in hot water.


For example, the Balance warns that certain common terms – such as bachelor apartment, married, singles, and seniors – could violate either fair housing laws or NAR ethics codes. Guaranteeing enrollment in a specific school district could also be considered a fair housing violation.


You may also be in violation of fair housing laws if you make statements designed to steer clients toward or away from certain neighborhoods or houses – for example, saying that one neighborhood is nice, or suggesting that another neighborhood is unsafe.


Giving your opinion about a neighborhood could open you up to allegations of discrimination. This means that sometimes you might not be able to answer questions. For example, HGTV states that clients often ask whether a neighborhood is good, and this is something that agents, legally speaking, should not answer. Although this may frustrate you, keep in mind that it’s a subjective question anyway.


Unfortunately, many agents don’t seem to be getting the message. In 2019, an investigative report from Newsday uncovered rampant discrimination among real estate agents in Long Island. In many cases, agents seemed to steer white and minority clients to different communities even when all other details were the same. Some agents also appeared to give more listings to white versus black clients, or to tell white clients about the racial and religious makeup of a neighborhood. Steering clients to certain schools – and the economic and racial issues sometimes associated with school achievement – may have also constituted fair housing violations. There’s more, too – the Newsday report details the results of three years of investigations, and real estate agents would be wise to read it in its entirety.


The Bottom Line: When you write listings, show properties, advise clients or negotiate sales, it’s always important to be mindful of fair housing requirements. Contact us if you have questions.

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