As urban buyers look for more space, agents need to be wary of racial steering. Here’s how they can do it.

As the demand for suburban housing rises, so to does the divide in what the suburbs represent. For buyers fleeing the city during the COVID-19 pandemic — and there’s a hot debate on just how big that trend is — the suburbs represent more space and the ability to spend time outdoors.

But at the same time, there’s an undeniable race component, when contrasting the suburbs to the city, the flames of which have recently been fanned by President Donald Trump.

It’s a construct the real estate industry can play a key role in knocking down.

Trump’s coded defense of the suburbs

On September 8, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) repealed the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, an Obama-era rule aimed at helping local officials identify “patterns of integration and segregation; racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty; disparities in access to opportunity; and disproportionate housing needs, as well as the contributing factors for those issues.”

In tweets discussing the move, Trump has focused solely on the divide between urban and suburban areas, mirroring the coded historical racism of the term, “There goes the neighborhood.”

Trump’s repeal of the rule has drawn criticism from Fair Housing activists and organizations dedicated to affordable housing and housing justice.

Lisa Rice | Photo credit: National Fair Housing Alliance

“In a cynical ploy to win over suburban white voters ahead of the election, President Trump has been using social media to spread lies about the 2015 AFFH rule and paint his new rule as a tool to supposedly save the suburbs,” Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said in a statement. ”

But by gutting AFFH, Trump will actually weaken the suburbs,” Rice added. “Studies have shown that all residents, regardless of race or national origin, benefit from diverse, inclusive communities, a stated goal of the Fair Housing Act.”

What is steering and what role does it play in segregating the suburbs?

Vince Malta | Photo credit: NAR

Steering, by definition, “is the practice of influencing a buyer’s choice of communities based upon one of the protected characteristics under the Fair Housing Act, which are race, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status, or national origin,” according to Vince Malta, the president of the National Association of Realtors.

Steering often manifests itself in a real estate professional taking vague asks and putting their own perception into the equation, according to Malta.

“If a client requests a ‘nice,’ ‘good,’ or ‘safe’ neighborhood, a real estate professional could unintentionally steer a client by excluding certain areas (for example, areas with large minority populations) based on his or her own perceptions of what those terms means,” Malta said.

The key role real estate can play in avoiding steering

While the data doesn’t exactly reflect the anecdotal evidence of decaying urban cores and a mass exodus to the suburbs, it does show there’s increased interest in suburban areas, especially for those with the ability to work from home in the near future.

A real estate agent’s role, in this case, will be helping urban buyers choose the best suburb. But as seen with the groundbreaking Newsday report last year, real estate agents can perpetuate housing discrimination through steering.

The multiple-bylined Newsday report found that 19 percent of the time, Asians were discriminated against, 39 percent of the time Hispanics were discriminated against and 49 percent of the time, black consumers were discriminated against.

Agents associated with multiple brokerages were accused of steering the undercover investigators to neighborhoods that matched their own race or ethnicity and often subjected minority investigators to more restrictive conditions prior to viewing properties.

Joe Rand | Photo credit: BHGRE Rand Realty

“Given the findings of the Newsday report last year, coupled with the increased attention to issues of racial fairness in the past few months, agents need to raise their awareness of their obligations to ensure Fair Housing to all,” said Joe Rand, chief creative officer at Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate — Rand Realty.

“This could be even more challenging when they’re dealing with buyers who are complete newcomers to the suburbs.”

Rand’s brokerage has 27 offices in the suburbs of New York City, in both New Jersey and New York. The brokerage covers some of the priciest areas, including portions of Westchester and Bergen Counties, along with more affordable ones like Rockland County and further up the Hudson River.

“We see Fair Housing as part of our commitment to providing clients with an amazing service experience generally,” Rand told Inman. “Among all the other problems with discriminatory practices, on a very practical level it means that you’re doing a really bad job for your clients, and our whole training program is built around the idea that we need to get better at our jobs.”

“So a lot of our training goes toward those issues of treating all clients with consistent professionalism, and many of our systems are designed to ensure nuts-and-bolts consistency,” Rand added.

In New York state, there’s a new requirement for an anti-discrimination disclosure. Instead of putting a bunch of photocopies in a file for agents to sign, Rand says his brokerage organizes all disclosures into a bound packet with two copies of each document for both the agent and client to sign. The client then gets to keep a bound copy of all the documents, ensuring they received copies of everything they signed.

LaShandria Sanderson | Photo credit: Redfin

The Chicagoland market has historically been one of the country’s most segregated housing markets, back to the days of redlining, the echoes of which still create massive inequality. LaShandria Sanderson, a manager with Redfin in Chicago and a member of the Chicago Association of Realtors’ diversity committee, told Inman that the history of the area keeps steering in the forefront of agents’ minds.

“It is definitely something that is an issue,” Sanderson said. “I think we’re all trying to make efforts to not fall into that — especially with more people moving to areas in the suburbs — and break that history of [segregation].”

But more than the suburban boom, Sanderson said the current climate of the country  — with nationwide protests against racism and police brutality — is forcing more and more agents to think about their own biases.

“I think we’re all kind of a little bit more aware of steering and trying to help people move based on our biases,” Sanderson said. “I think everybody is a lot more alert about that right now.”

It’s not necessarily that agents are deliberately steering customers, Sanderson explained, but rather they are putting their own biases or opinions in front of the consumers, in the home search.

Sanderson advises agents to ask consumers a lot of questions when they’re looking for a suburb to choose. There are plenty of different factors that don’t have historically racial overtones.

Sanderson said you can ask buyers what type of home they’re looking for, whether new or a fixer-upper. She said you can ask about commute-time or property taxes. And if buyers are insistent on asking about things like crime rates, you can give them data sources to research on their own, that way you are not clouding their decision-making.

NAR advises its members to provide clients listings based on objective criteria alone and ask impartial questions to clarify criteria, when the consumer is using vague terms. The 1.4 million-member association also advises agents to direct clients to third-party sources when asking for neighborhood-centric information.

The association recently developed a new, 50-minute implicit bias training video regarding overcoming unconscious stereotypes. Malta said the video was based on recent scientific research and evidence that is aimed at illustrating how the human brain’s automatic instant association of stereotypes with particular groups can impact their treatment of people who are different from them.

Sanderson and Rand both praised all the work NAR has done to provide education and training tools to agents, as well as the guidance from their own parent companies of Redfin and Realogy, but both said the onus is ultimately on the individual agent.

“It’s really a granular challenge, though, starting with the agents themselves,” Rand said. “They’re the ones in the room with the client, so it’s up to them to execute on the guidance they’ve received.”

Email Patrick Kearns

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