Below, some tips for ensuring that brokerages, associates, support staff, and even clients remain in compliance with fair housing laws.
Fair housing brokerage policy suggestions
While having a written fair housing policy does not guarantee that a company will not be charged with violations of the Fair Housing Act, it does provide guidelines for sales associates and serves as evidence of the company’s intent to provide equal opportunity to all customers. Use these guidelines as a starting point for developing a company fair housing policy.
- Develop a written statement of the company’s public commitment to policies of nondiscrimination in all real estate activities, including advertising.
- Distribute this policy to all sales associates and ensure that all associates receive training in fair housing compliance.
- Assign a company "fair housing officer” to keep current on any law changes and to answer questions on fair housing issues that arise.
- Develop an "equal service report” to ensure that all prospects are asked the same qualifying questions. Encourage associates to retain copies of these reports for two years as proof of fair treatment.
- Keep records of all advertisements and ad placements for two years as proof of fair advertising policies.
- Monitor associate behavior for possible discrimination and take action to correct failures in performance.
Five keys to reducing fair housing liability
Ensuring that your company provides equal service standards and encouraging sales people to keep careful records demonstrating that those standards were implemented equally to all prospects provides a strong defense against charges of fair housing violations.
- Develop a standardized list of questions (see sidebar) salespeople can use to qualify all prospective sellers; develop a similar list for buyers. Have salespeople take down responses to the questions on these forms and keep them on file.
- Establish specific formulas that salespeople can use to determine the price range of houses that a prospective buyer can afford so that the salesperson’s judgments don’t seem based on discriminatory criteria.
- Keep a record of every property shown to buyers so that you can later demonstrate that you followed the criteria established in the qualification process. If buyers make requests for specific areas, note that in your records.
- Keep phone logs of inquiry calls made to the company and train receptionists in a standardized response to questions about the company’s services. Remember that a prospect doesn’t have to become a client to sue for discrimination.
- Record how the salesperson chose the houses that were shown and what criteria were used to eliminate other potential homes.
Four strategies from a fair housing trainer
- Hire a diverse workforce, in the office and in the field. You want all potential clients and customers to feel comfortable when they come into your office.
- Provide adequate training for sales associates. Make sure they understand fair housing guidelines so they don’t unintentionally discriminate against a protected class.
- Have an in-house fair housing specialist review and edit your ads.
- Help sales associates embrace diversity and change so they can be role models for changing communities. Offer diversity training that will help your salespeople become more sensitive to the customs and attitudes of different cultures.
Red flags for potential violations
An ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure in correcting fair housing violations among your staff and salespeople. Look for:
- The use of racial or excessive use of sexual or ethnic humor by associates.
- The use of inconsistent standards in qualifying prospects.
- An unwillingness to attend fair housing training.
- Warning signals in client surveys that may indicate a bias by an associate.
If you see a salesperson or a member of your support staff engaging in any of these activities more than once, counsel the associate on fair housing requirements immediately. If this conduct persists, you don’t want him or her on your staff.
Fair housing advertising practices
All forms of promotion done by a brokerage company and by individual sales associates (including marketing brochures, newspaper advertising, and radio ads) must comply with the nondiscriminatory goals of the Fair Housing Act.
- Avoid using language that indicates a bias against a protected class.
- Use consistent language in all the advertising for the same property.
- Describe the attributes of the property, not the prospective buyers you think would like it. For example, your advertisements should say "a beautiful, fully fenced backyard,” not "a great backyard for children.”
- Use human models of different ages, sexes, and races in your advertising if you use models.
- Choose advertising media that cover a broad range of markets and don’t exclude certain groups.
Illegal target marketing
Targeting a market niche that may be particularly suited to your services is a sound personal marketing strategy. However, it’s important to balance marketing strategies with fair housing. You should avoid:
- Advertising only in select editions of the local newspaper.
- Advertising only in a strategically limited geographical area that is populated by a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group.
- Limiting advertising to small papers, free journals, or niche publications that cater to particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups.
- Promoting the home in selected sales offices.
Brokerage ADA compliance
The provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act don’t apply to most residential housing, which are covered by the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of handicaps. However, because the brokerage office is a place of "public accommodation,” where goods and services are offered to the public, the ADA requires that the office and its real estate services must be accessible to those with handicaps.
One of the cornerstones of providing accessibility under the Americans With Disabilities Act is the concept of "reasonable accommodation.” This means that a company will make changes to its facilities and business procedures that are "reasonable” in terms of the time and money involved in the change. Although the act doesn’t define exactly what "reasonable” is, judgments can be based on common sense. For example, it might not be reasonable to knock down a wall of an existing office to widen a door. But if the front of the office were being renovated and the wall was being removed, it would be reasonable to widen the door. To help ensure accessibility:
- Offer to meet handicapped customers in their homes or other accessible public places if your office is not accessible.
- Offer to take pictures of every room of an open house on your digital camera if the home is not easily accessible to the handicapped.
- Provide large-print contracts or have the contracts read onto audiocassette for the visually impaired.
- Locate an interpreter to carry on a negotiation for those with hearing impairments.
Final words of wisdom
Be sure to remind your sellers of fair housing laws, and get them to agree in writing to comply with the fair housing obligation as part of the listing agreement.
The appropriate response to a discriminatory statement by a client depends in part on whether the discriminatory behavior was intentional, whether anyone was harmed by the behavior, and the extent to which others are aware of the behavior. If a seller makes a remark to you alone, you can first try to educate the seller about the implications of fair housing. If the remark is made in front of clients in a protected class, more serious measures, such as sending a letter of apology to the buyers and possibly resigning the account may be necessary (source: Seth Weissman, general counsel, Georgia Association of Realtors®).
When buyers ask to be shown properties in a particular ethnic or religious community, turn the request around and ask them what geographic areas they are interested in. Explain that you’ll present them with housing opportunities in a few different areas. Direct them to public sources of demographic information, and ask them to find out what areas fit their criteria.
Editor’s Note: All information contained in this article was compiled from the National Association of Realtors® and Realtor® Magazine Online sources.