It’s vital that agents understand and abide by fair housing real estate laws to prevent discrimination. While you are responsible to find your client a home, answer their questions, and address their concerns, the Fair Housing Act disallows discussion of specific topics, and doing so can jeopardize your real estate license. Protect yourself and your clients by learning the definition of fair housing and the steps you can take to prevent discrimination in your real estate business.
Disclaimer: While this article provides basic guidance accompanied by research, you should always consult legal advice if you and your clients experience a violation of real estate fair housing laws.
What Is the Fair Housing Act?
Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Fair Housing Act was signed into law in 1968. Its purpose is to prevent discrimination when people are buying, renting, or selling a home, seeking housing assistance, getting a mortgage, or any other real estate-related activities. Fair housing applies to all members of a real estate transaction, including real estate agents, brokers, property managers, landlords, loan officers, title company agents, and more.
The Fair Housing Act was amended in 1974 and 1988 to include additional protected classes under the federal law. This law aims to promote equality and prohibit discriminatory actions and practices for all protected classes that are seeking housing.
The federal law makes it illegal to discriminate against the following seven protected classes:
- National origin
- Disability (physical or mental)
- Familial status
Some states, like Texas, base Fair Housing rules on the nationally protected classes, while other states, like New York, California, Illinois, and others, have incorporated additional protected classes over the years. Depending on your state’s fair housing laws, more protected classes can include:
- Gender, gender express, and gender identity
- Citizenship status
- Partnership status
- Lawful occupation
- Source of income
- Domestic violence victim status
- Genetic information
- Marital status
- Medical condition
- Sexual orientation
- Military or veteran status
- Primary language
- Criminal background
5 Steps to Protect Yourself Against Fair Housing Violations
You need to learn and comprehend each of the national and state-specific protected classes to protect yourself as a real estate professional, and to prevent your clients from being discriminated against during a real estate transaction. 2010 to 2021 reports from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP), and Department of Justice (DOJ) have indicated that total fair housing complaints remain high at 28,712.
Real estate-related violations of the Fair Housing Act can occur in many forms, like how you advertise yourself or your listing, the questions you ask prospective clients, and how you respond to requests for information. Here are the five steps to protect against fair housing violations, including examples that can help you identify when, and if, a violation has occurred:
1. Know How to Approach Frequently Asked Client Questions
When finding a new home to buy or rent, clients often ask a lot of questions to define their home preferences, learn about desirable locations, and learn about the local community. As the buyer’s real estate agent, you will feel compelled to answer all of their questions, but you must be prepared not to address questions if they may violate fair housing laws.
Although questions may seem innocent, speaking about protected classes can cause discrimination and the loss of your real estate license. There are many examples besides those listed below (like these from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), but here are some of the most frequently asked client questions with solutions for how to respond without violating the real estate Fair Housing Act.
‘Is this a safe neighborhood?’
It is commonplace for people to want to live in a safe neighborhood to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their property against robbery, assault, burglary, and other crimes. A Vivint survey found that 22.5% of respondents would be willing to pay $50,000 to $99,000 more to live in a safe neighborhood, and 18.9% were willing to pay $100,000 or more. As shown in the below graph, homebuyers are also willing to give up desired home features to ensure they live in a safer neighborhood.
While safety is a practical concern for everyone, real estate agents are prohibited from answering questions regarding safety and crime statistics. Speaking about crime statistics can be interpreted as a reference to race and can steer clients away from living in a particular area. Also, it’s important to take into consideration that safety is subjective.
Even though you can’t answer this question, whether offering an opinion or with actual statistics, you can help clients find answers themselves. Explain why you cannot answer this question and encourage them to look at statistics available from local police websites, sex offender registries, and government websites. Keep in mind, though, that you still can’t recommend specific websites to visit.
However, you can suggest that your client visit the area at different times of the day and night to observe the neighborhood (preferably accompanied by a friend or family member). You can also suggest they connect with and speak to people who live in the area via social media, such as neighborhood Facebook groups, or at local establishments like coffee shops or restaurants.
You can also discuss security measures like alarm systems and motion video cameras any homeowner might use regardless of the safety statistics in their area. Although this won’t answer the question directly, you will be doing your due diligence as a real estate professional to address your client’s concerns without violating the Fair Housing Act.
‘What are the neighbors like?’
If your client is moving into a condo or rental building and shares a wall with neighbors, they may want to talk about the potential noise level from the person next door. Or if your client has children, they may want to find out if there are other children in the neighborhood their kids will be able to play with.
So while this question may seem innocent, answering it can be a violation of many protected classes under real estate fair housing laws. The many possible answers to this question can infringe on the protected classes such as race, familial status, disability, gender, marital status, or many others, so real estate professionals must refrain from providing answers that could violate the Fair Housing Act.
Even if you’d like to tell your clients that the neighbors are lovely people, simply recommend they check it out and decide for themselves instead. Similar to the suggestions above, your clients can visit the location at various times of the day to listen for noise, observe activity, and understand the general vibe of the area.
Your client can also research the location online and visit local establishments to speak to patrons. If there are neighbors outside while they are visiting the property, they can speak to them as well.
Ask your client questions based on their inquiry like “Are you concerned about noise levels?”, “Are you looking to be in a more populated area or rural area?”, and “Is this street and house lighting bright enough?” The answers to these questions will give you insights into your client’s desired location (rather than demographics) so you can better specify their search without violating real estate fair housing laws.
‘Are there churches/synagogues/mosques & so on close by?’
Religion is an important part of many people’s lives, but cannot be part of the conversation when discussing real estate. In fact, 333, or 1.16%, of fair housing complaints in 2020 were based on religion. These include complaints relating to discriminating against someone because of their religious affiliation, suggesting certain locations because of places of worship, or refusing to rent, sell, or buy with members of a specific religion.
Clients may ask this question if they simply want to have close access to their particular place of worship. However, they might also ask this because they are hoping to avoid a specific group of people. Regardless, answering could violate the Fair Housing Act. Instead, offer your clients an alternative solution to finding the information they are looking for.
They can search the internet for the type of religious institutions they are looking for, use online maps, or even use Yelp to find the closest religious sites. You can also suggest they join Facebook groups that appeal to their religious beliefs to decide if the location they are searching in has schools, places of worship, and/or groups that foster their religious beliefs. Since federal and state fair housing laws prevent real estate agents from answering directly, this offers an alternative method to answer your client’s question.
‘Is this a good school district?’
Odds are that savvy parents will already have researched the best school districts when deciding on a new home for their families, but many homebuyers will ask this question to get a local opinion as well. Not only is the answer to this question subjective, but it can violate many protected classes under the real estate Fair Housing Act, including race, gender, disability, familial status, religion, and others.
If your real estate niche focuses on a particular location, you may be tempted to speak highly of the school district and may even know people who work within it, but this would be a violation of fair housing that could lead to you losing your real estate license. Insist that your clients do their own research on school districts to make sure they are happy with the level of education and reputation of the schools in the area.
They can visit school district websites and connect with other families in the area through social media like Facebook, Instagram, and online forums. Encourage them to schedule a tour of local schools to speak with principals, teachers, or other professionals in the system.
As a real estate professional, you can ask your clients what their desired location parameters are to guarantee they are in their desired school zone without actually suggesting which school zone they should consider. Keep in mind that clients should also research school zoning to make sure they are in the correct area for the school they wish to attend.
For instance, let’s say that right now, 1st through 5th Streets attend School A and 6th through 10th Streets attend School B, but next year you know the district is planning to change the parameters of School A to expand to 6th Street because of overcrowding. Tell your clients to be cognizant of this so you don’t place them in a home that is no longer zoned for a particular school district.
‘Is there a large population of X in the area?’
Studies show that discrimination is widespread throughout all protected classes, with the highest being disability, race, and “other,” which consists of a variety of categories listed above. Answering this question can violate any or all of the protected classes outlined in the Fair Housing Act, so as a real estate professional, you should not address this question.
Clients may ask because they want to be in a culturally diverse area, be around similar religious or ethnic backgrounds, or for other innocent reasons, but that is up to them to research and decide upon. Direct your clients to investigate statistics from the Census Bureau, demographic data sites, and local websites, and to walk around the neighborhood they are interested in. This will allow your clients to observe and see if the location fits their criteria.
‘Is my service animal accepted?’
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, and the task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. This could be an allergy detection dog, guide dog, psychiatric service dog, or seizure service dog, just to name a few.
Unlike the other questions on this list, you can answer this question with a “yes.” It is required for landlords, property owners, and homeowners associations to allow service animals with proper documentation. If a real estate professional refuses to consider a service animal, they are violating the Fair Housing Act.
Keep in mind that while your client’s application or offer is required to be considered, it does not have to be accepted as long as the rejection is not due to their service animal. Make sure your clients have the proper documentation to present to the landlord, property manager, or homeowners association. Many real estate agents also include a calm and cute picture of the service animal to put it in the best light.
‘Is this building wheelchair accessible?’
Disability, including both mental and physical disabilities, is a protected class under real estate Fair Housing Act rules, making it illegal to discriminate against anyone who has any type of disability. In 2020, complaints alleging discrimination because of disability account for the largest number of fair housing complaints, at 54.56%.
Real estate agents, landlords, property managers, and other housing-related professionals can’t answer questions like “Are there disabled people living in the building?” or ask “What is your disability?” or “Do you have proof of your disability?” However, you can answer if buildings have or can provide reasonable accommodations and modifications for disabilities.
These two terms are defined as:
- Accommodations: An accommodation is a change, adjustment, or exception to a property rule, policy, practice, or service. For example, acceptance of a service animal even though there is a “no pet policy” in the building is an accommodation.
- Modifications: A modification is any kind of structural change made to the premise or unit, such as installing support bars in a bathroom, adding a ramp for wheelchair accessibility, or moving a thermostat or light switch lower so it can be reached more easily.
Landlords, property managers, and other housing professionals are legally required to make reasonable accommodations and modifications to buildings and facilities for people with disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), reasonable changes include all those that do not cause the owner undue financial and administrative burden.
For instance, installing a ramp to make the building wheelchair accessible would be possible, whereas installing an elevator in a walk-up building would be a modification that could cause a burden for the landlord. Rather, the landlord can modify the disabled person’s living situation by offering them a ground-floor apartment instead of installing an elevator.
As a real estate professional, you can inquire about any particular needs or preferences your client has (which you should do regardless of disabilities). Also, if your client does require specific accommodations or modifications, you should speak to the property manager, landlord, or owner to confirm they are met before your client moves in.
‘Does the landlord/owner accept vouchers?’
Housing choice voucher programs, also known as Section 8 programs, are federal government programs put in place to assist low-income families, the disabled, and the elderly to afford housing in single-family homes, apartments, and townhouses. There are many types of Housing Choice Vouchers available, such as family unification vouchers, homeownership vouchers, tenant base vouchers, and more.
When asked if a landlord or owner accepts vouchers, your answer should always be “Yes, all forms of lawful income are considered.” By replying with “I don’t know” or “No,” you are violating the real estate Fair Housing Act and discriminating against the protected class called sources of income. Our role as agents is not to judge where money is coming from, but to determine if the client qualifies, financially, to purchase or rent the property. It is also illegal for landlords to turn away clients if they possess a voucher.
Discussions about buying or renting a home should include talking about finances to see what the client is comfortable spending regardless of vouchers. Ask them to send you all their paperwork so you can prepare a file for them so that when they are ready to rent or buy, you have everything organized. This gives you the ability to review their financial situation and accommodate their housing needs.
2. Eliminate Real Estate Fair Housing Violations in Advertising & Marketing
Not only can you violate real estate fair housing laws by speaking or answering questions, but you can also show discrimination toward protected classes in words and content used in advertisements and marketing materials. This can occur when preparing content for your marketing plan like email marketing, postcards, real estate ads, listings, websites, landing pages, or any other type of real estate marketing materials.
Before you use your client relationship manager (CRM), like Pipedrive, Top Producer, or LionDesk, to generate real estate leads with automated email and text campaigns or real estate ads, review your email carefully to check for any potential violations. Keep in mind phrases to avoid and alternative language to use. Here are a few examples:
“Lots of storage space for Christmas decorations”
Religion: Mention of Christmas/Christianity
“Lots of storage for decorations, furniture, and other knick-knacks”
“Steps to the park” or “walking distance to the library”
Disability: Walking/steps is not possible for everyone
“Three blocks from the park” or “.2 miles from the park”
“Low crime statistics in the neighborhood” or “safe neighborhood”
Crime statistics, race, and so on: Subjective opinion and steering
“Family-friendly” or “great for families”
Familial status: Cannot discriminate against those with or without families
“Large backyard” or “Parks nearby”
“1-bedroom apartment, perfect for singles, non-drinkers welcome”
Age, marital status, familial status, and disability: Cannot discriminate against marital status; also, alcoholism is considered a disability
“Cozy 1-bedroom apartment with space for full-size bed, dresser, and nightstand”
“Master bedroom with en suite”
Race: “Master” bedroom is a term used during slavery
“Primary bedroom with en suite” or “Main suite”
“Last remodeled in 1990, a handyman’s dream”
Gender: Various genders can be handy, not specific to men
“Fixer-upper” or “Needs TLC”
Use inclusive language and be sensitive to differences, like utilizing “double sinks” rather than “his and hers” or “partners” instead of referring to people as boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives. To avoid excluding diverse ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and so on from your marketing campaigns, use photos and images that include diverse groups of people.
By removing or replacing just one or two words, you can protect yourself from violating real estate fair housing laws. Remember that you are advertising the property and not the people perceived to be a perfect match for the property. Focus on the amenities, features, and details of the property to promote it equally. For additional word alternatives and example ads, visit our article 115 Real Estate Words to Spice Up Your Property Listings.
To make it easy, outsource creation of real estate marketing collateral to a company well-versed in the real estate industry laws and regulations, like Market Leader. Market Leader creates and automates the sending of monthly newsletters to your email contact list along with print, email, and even phone campaigns. Users have access to their full library of customizable, brandable marketing materials like flyers, business cards, and more.
3. Be Confident With Real Estate Testers
In 1991, the Department of Justice (DOJ) established a Fair Housing Testing Program that tests real estate agents in the field to make sure they are complying with the real estate Fair Housing Act. Similar to secret shoppers, these testers will call to inquire about a listing or attend open houses and showings. Essentially, testers will pose and act as potential clients to assess whether you are discriminating against any of the protected classes.
Whether you’re an experienced or a new real estate professional, there is no reason to be alarmed or concerned as long as you are following the Fair Housing Act’s real estate laws. Here are some actions you can take to be prepared and ensure you are in compliance:
- Learn and comprehend the makeup and scope of all protected classes
- Regularly check the HUD, DOJ, and your local state website for updates to real estate fair housing laws and regulations
- Review all advertising and marketing materials for terms or phrases that may discriminate
- Attend training sessions at your local real estate board and brokerage
- Complete continuing education hours that cover Fair Housing laws
Attending an online real estate school is an efficient and effective way to refresh your knowledge and stay abreast of any changes. The CE Shop is a self-paced online learning platform that has Fair Housing Act real estate classes that contribute to your required continuing education hours. You can also choose from a variety of other courses to customize and build your real estate industry knowledge.
4. Know Who to Contact When Discrimination Occurs
If you or your client feels they have experienced a violation of real estate fair housing laws or discrimination against them occurs that inhibits their ability to get a home, direct them to file a complaint with a national or state agency. They must record the date, time, and incident as accurately as possible to ensure the situation is fully documented.
5. Promote Equality
As a real estate professional, the bottom line is that you should continually promote equality among your clients, colleagues, and yourself. Preventing discrimination in advertising, marketing, and while speaking with clients and others ensures a safe and pleasant working environment for everyone involved in a transaction. Not only does this follow the Fair Housing Act’s real estate laws, but it also ensures a successful real estate career and clients who want to work with you for years to come.