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Cincinnati-based REALTOR® Sylvia Nelson says she often encounters buyers who want to ask those vaguely loaded questions that can have serious implications.

“The thing I encounter most is people asking things like, ‘Is this a nice neighborhood?'” says Nelson, of Comey and Shepherd REALTORS®. “I always respond, ‘Well, what does nice mean to you?’ A lot of times, people will have that bias, and they don’t understand. They’ll say things that are biased, but they don’t realize that.”

It has been 52 years since enactment of the Fair Housing Act, historic legislation meant to ensure equal housing opportunities, yet many in the housing industry agree more has to be done. Nelson cites just one way an agent can be drawn into a situation where they could potentially violate the law. There are also instances where REALTORS® allegedly engage in discrimination of their own initiative.

A recent Newsday article unveiled an undercover investigation accusing several New York-based real estate agents of “steering,” a Fair Housing Act violation that involves influencing a buyer’s choice of communities based upon the buyer’s race, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status or national origin.

The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), in January, unveiled a new plan called ACT!, which helps ensure that REALTORS® comply with laws that prohibit discrimination. Specifically, the ACT! initiative will emphasize accountability, culture change and training to ensure America’s 1.4 million REALTORS® are doing all they can to protect housing rights.

Among the provisions in the new initiative are plans to: work closely with state association executives to ensure that state licensing laws include effective fair housing training requirements and hold real estate agents accountable to their fair housing obligations; launch a public-service announcement campaign that reaffirms NAR’s commitment to fair housing; and explore the creation of a voluntary self-testing program, in partnership with a fair housing organization, as a resource for brokers and others who want confidential reports on agent practices so they can address problems.

In addition to the initiative, NAR reorganized last year to create a new Fair Housing Policy Committee that would enable the organization to advocate more effectively. Bryan Greene, who had previously been the general deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, began at NAR in early November 2019 in a newly created role as director of Fair Housing Policy.

Weeks later, the Newsday article broke.

“There’s no reason to believe that the practices Newsday revealed are limited to Long Island, N.Y.,” says Greene. “I oversaw federal government enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, and we saw similar practices throughout the country.

“We believe it’s up to NAR to proactively address this problem,” Greene explains. “We know that REALTORS® have to lead for many reasons. It serves no useful value for REALTORS® to be associated with discrimination of any kind. It harms our reputation. It’s also a poor economic model. Discrimination is bad for business and bad for society. Finally, as our Code of Ethics emphasizes, it is simply wrong.

“There’s so much to be done,” adds Greene. “My focus is advancing the legislative and regulatory agenda of our members when it comes to fair housing. That means promoting an economy that works better for everybody, and promoting healthy communities, so we can expand homeownership. ACT! helps ensure that REALTORS® on the ground are the best ambassadors they can be for the future we want to build together as Americans.” 

Janelle Brevard is chief storyteller for the National Association of REALTORS®. For more information, please visit www.nar.realtor.

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