A real estate team in Jackson, Mississippi, steered white homebuyers away from predominantly black neighborhoods while neglecting African-American homebuyers, an investigation by the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) found.

This week the NFHA settled the housing discrimination complaint, originally filed two years ago, with The Lee Garland and Rita Jensen Team (Lorgroup), doing business as Re/Max Alliance.

As a result of the settlement, Lorgroup must pay NFHA $46,000, participate in fair housing training and display fair housing signs in its offices.

Moreover, Lorgroup has agreed to promote fair housing in the communities where it does business and to expand equal housing opportunities for all consumers.

The Lee Garland & Rita Jensen team Facebook page cover photo

“Steering intentionally perpetuates residential segregation and is illegal under the Fair Housing Act,” said National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) President and CEO Shanna L. Smith in a statement. “This is why it is imperative that real estate companies work to expand equal housing opportunities for everyone.  When people choose where they want to live without artificial and illegal barriers, our communities and neighborhoods are stronger.

NFHA General Counsel Morgan Williams says the $46,000 is the Alliance’s reward as an organizational plaintiff and covers the cost of the resources the Alliance used to investigate the claims. Williams says it will be reinvested in the Alliance to pursue other targeted fair housing investigations.

Inman has reached out to The Lee Garland and Rita Jensen Team and the Re/Max franchise for comment and will update the story with comments as we receive them.

Red flags raised

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) alerted NFHA about a number of complaints it received about this particular agency. Because there is no local fair housing office in Jackson, NFHA took on the responsibility of investigating the claims.

To corroborate the HUD complaints, NFHA conducted phone and in-person testing in which nine individuals of different races were prepared with similar housing needs — type of home, size, price range, etc. — and prompted to call the agency in question for help with their home search.

The team’s Zillow profile

The testers had similar qualifications to buy a home: they were all pre-approved, had the same down payment and comparable jobs. But one important caveat, says Williams, is that the black tester was slightly more qualified to purchase the home.

The white testers reported that the company provided exceptional service and steered them away from predominately black or integrated neighborhoods. Black testers, on the other hand, said their calls and inquiries were often ignored.

What’s next?

The Lee Garland and Rita Jensen Team (Lorgroup) will begin a six-hour online Fair Housing Act compliance course provided by the Mississippi Realtor Institute, which is powered by RE Campus.

Furthermore, the brokerage will have to maintain records proving the promotion of fair housing and the expansion of equal housing opportunities in the communities where it does business. They will be under HUD monitoring for one year and must report on the compliance of the terms of the settlement.

“This case is a reminder that all real estate market players in the industry may be subject to fair housing investigation, which serves to generally ensure that real estate actors in Jackson and across the country act to promote fair housing in communities where they do business,” Williams said.

For agents unclear on the Fair Housing Act, Williams suggested they study The National Association of Realtors’ Field Guide to Fair Housing and participate in NAR’s Fair Housing Program.

“Fair housing is the law, believe it or not. But housing discrimination is still alive and well. Any person or group that violates the Fair Housing Act must face the consequences,” said Charles Harris, executive director of Jackson-based Housing Education and Economic Development, Inc.

“This victory should send a strong message to real estate agents in the Jackson area that racial steering will not be tolerated and that their practices are being monitored. Furthermore, African-American homebuyers should expect equal treatment and services when they are buying homes.”

Email Marian McPherson.

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