The National Association of Realtors is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act at its annual midyear conference in Washington, D.C. The trade association is also publicly acknowledging its lack of support for the landmark legislation in the past.

“Fair housing legislation is as important to the rights of all Americans as was the abolishment of slavery and the women’s right to vote,” said Steve Brown, a former president of NAR. “It is about embracing what our founding fathers embraced — that all people are created equal with an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Today, it is absolutely hard to image that our original code of ethics supported racial segregation,” he added. “And NAR opposed the Fair Housing Act in 1968.”

NAR, along with organizations like National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), is focused not solely on enforcing the letter the of the law, but actually embracing the spirit of the law according to Brown. And acknowledging that there are still barriers to fair housing is part of that.

“Today, economic segregation remains a problem,” said Jeffery Hicks, president of NAREB. “Urban centers — long the home of black Americans — are being gentrified. Many with deep community roots are being forced out by rising taxes and skyrocketing housing costs.”

Hicks cited formidable obstacles like outdated credit score policies, crippling student debt and unfair mortgage practices as barriers to achieving true fair housing. He believes education and financial empowerment are the best ways to support fair homeownership.

The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin in the renting or selling of housing. The law does not mention sexuality or gender identity. While many states outlaw discrimination based on the latter two categories, it’s still not the law of the land.

As part of discussion on federal legislative policies, Fred Underwood, director of diversity and community outreach programs a NAR, said the organization supports existing legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected classes.

“Imagine that you are working with a young person who is looking to buy a home, and you’re in a state that does not protect bases on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Underwood said. “And they have been victimized by a landlord or a neighbor who is not under any obligation to treat that person fairly.”

“They are going to be at a disadvantage when it comes time to buy a home because they may be paying higher rent, or forced to live in a situation that’s less than desirable,” he added. “It affects us and our ability to serve that person.”

Even though it’s part of NAR’s Realtor Code of Ethics, not every agent or landlord in every state is under an obligation to treat those individuals fairly. That would change if the legislation is passed. It’s currently still in committee and experts on the topic don’t believe it will make it to a vote.

“By making it part of the Fair Housing Act it puts everyone on an equal playing field,” Underwood said.

The Fair Housing Act has recently also become a source of controversy for the Department of Housing and Urban development. After seeking to delay implementation of an Obama-era fair housing rule requiring state and local governments to do more to fight segregation when receiving federal funds, several community activist groups and now New York state are suing the agency, saying the delay is unlawful.

All of which goes to show, that 50 years after its passage, the issues of housing discrimination that first motivated the Fair Housing Act are still sources of conflict today.

Email Patrick Kearns

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