Last month, Inman News columnist Bernice Ross wrote an excellent column about fair-housing issues. What she wrote were some blatant examples of fair-housing violations. Such violations can still be found in marketing, and there can be subtle violations, too, as following the letter of the law is complicated.
"Family" is one of those words that pose complications for real estate professionals. I try to dot every "i" and cross every "t" when it comes to fair housing and I believe in fair housing, yet the rules that real estate professionals must follow to be fair are confusing.
A real estate blog is a great place to get into trouble with fair-housing enforcement. I have received comments on my blog from fair-housing officials so I know they are out there reading. The comments have been favorable so I know that I am not doing anything illegal.
I don’t publish crime rates or demographics. I used to have links to the information, but for now I have taken the links down because I am paranoid that it might just come across that I actually like some neighborhoods better than others for a variety of reasons. It is alright for me to have my own preferences — I just can’t recommend or steer clients into or away from a neighborhood.
I have mastered the art of telling buyers nothing when they ask me if a neighborhood is "good" or "bad." I always start by explaining that those are subjective terms and that I cannot answer a question like that and why I cannot. I like to tell a story about how a client did not want to leave her car on a certain street when we went looking at some houses.
The client did not know that the street was one block from my own home. I listened patiently as she told me what a bad neighborhood it is. It is clear to me that I don’t know what a bad neighborhood is, so even if I could give that advice I don’t think it would be good advice.
I often wonder if some of my peers handle this differently. After all, the fair-housing "police" are not in my car and they can’t hear what I am telling my clients, so I can say anything I like … but I don’t. …CONTINUED
We do things in our marketing and on the multiple listing service that don’t appear to follow the letter of the fair-housing law. For instance, I cannot advertise a home as being a great home for a family but I can advertise that the home has a family room in it. Why is it legal to advertise a family room but illegal to say "family home"?
What is a family, anyway? I know people who live together and have legal relationships, or common ancestors, or who just live together because they like to. I suppose a person who lives alone is not a family. What will that person do with the family room?
Last night there was a discussion on Twitter about the term "master bedroom." What does it mean and why do we use the term? Has it been passed down from the days of slavery? Or maybe "master" implies parents, and the other bedrooms are for the children? That would imply that the home is for a family.
"Master" is also a somewhat masculine term, but I won’t go there. In our discussion, we concluded that the master bedroom is the largest bedroom in the house and left it at that.
In our MLS, homes are listed either as single-family residences or multiple-family residences. Doesn’t that imply that homes are for families? They are clearly not just for families, yet we define them by how many families can live in them because we don’t have better terms. Why is it legal to categorize a home as a single-family home but not legal to advertise it as a single-family home?
The law plainly states that we cannot discriminate when it comes to housing — that is clear. What is confusing is the language of fair-housing laws, and what real estate professionals can and cannot say when marketing properties.
Teresa Boardman is a broker in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the St. Paul Real Estate blog.
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