The National Association of Realtors’ CEO on Wednesday defended controversial proposed changes to the trade group’s Code of Ethics that would crack down on racist and discriminatory speech and behavior among members.
At the same time, attendees of NAR’s annual conference received more clarity on the reasons behind the proposed changes and a sneak peak into potential diversity-related changes to core standards for local and state associations.
If implemented, the ethics changes would apply NAR’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice to all of a Realtor’s activities, not just those related to real estate. They would also prohibit hate and harassing speech against protected classes, as well as all discrimination, not just willful discrimination, against protected classes. And the changes would recommend that ethics violations be considered under membership qualification criteria, among other things.
NAR’s board of directors will vote on the policy recommendations on Nov. 13.
Andréa Moore, NAR’s new vice president of diversity and inclusion and talent opportunity, detailed NAR’s efforts as an organization toward diversity and inclusion at a meeting of NAR’s Diversity Committee on Wednesday, which was live-streamed as part of the annual Realtors Conference & Expo.
They include implicit bias training for all staff, adding diversity and inclusion as a core value and assessing staff on how they contribute to a culture of inclusion, and a vendor and supplier survey that went out last week to ask for demographic information on vendor ownership and leadership that Moore said would help the trade group “see how we can continue to support both smaller and minority-owned businesses.”
NAR President Vince Malta made a surprise visit to the committee meeting and praised the committee for being the driving force behind progress the trade group had made. Realtors must be active participants in promoting equality, inclusion and acceptance in their communities, according to Malta.
“We’re being proactive,” Malta said. “We’re leading the way for our industry. We have a special responsibility given the legacy of housing discrimination in America. Realtors were on the wrong side of history for far too long. Housing discrimination and segregation have devastating impacts on families in so many ways and the legacy of this discrimination still looms large today with us.”
“We have to own our own story, our own history,” he added. “We must educate our members and the public about it. We must fight for policies that address racial injustice and build safe, inclusive spaces for all.”
It’s not enough to just stop discriminatory behavior, according to Malta. “It’s going to take positive action to remedy decades’ worth of inequality and we must continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with millions of Americans in affirming that Black lives matter,” he said.
“Some say, ‘Stay out of this issue, NAR. Just stay in your lane.’ Well, this is our lane. This is the time for Realtors to step up and lead.”
He touted NAR’s new consumer ad campaign focused on fair housing, its partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to examine economic inequality in America, and its community rebuilding grants for local and state associations to restore public community places impacted by racial injustice demonstrations.
“Tearing down the legacy of discrimination in housing and working towards greater diversity and inclusion in our industry has just been a central focus of NAR this year,” he said.
NAR CEO Bob Goldberg, who also attended the committee meeting, noted that the committee had expressed frustration in the past because NAR had done a lot of talking about diversity and inclusion but wasn’t taking action.
“Talk is cheap, and actions speak better than words,” Goldberg said.
“There will be bumpy roads, but we’re prepared to take on that challenge. You’ll see some of those things happening, certainly this week, like with professional standards,” he added, noting “the bullets that many people have been taking” when discussing those proposed changes.
“But we’re there all together to work to make sure that we make the changes that are needed for this industry,” he said.
Matt Difanis, chair of the Professional Standards Committee, presented the proposed ethics changes to the Diversity Committee, noting that the former had approved the proposals by a 10 to 1 margin.
One of the policies the committee is proposing, Standard of Practice 10-5, reads as follows: “Realtors must not use harassing speech, hate speech, epithets, or slurs based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
A Realtor that violates the policy would be charged under Article 10 of the Code of Ethics, which prohibits denying equal professional services to anyone in those protected classes.
Difanis praised NAR’s “That’s Who We R” ad campaign, which highlights Realtors’ community leadership, but said that “high profile instances of bigoted hate speech” happening outside of real estate transactions are threatening that image.
“If we end up with Realtors who become late night keyboard bigots saying it’s outside the confines of the real estate transaction and those get shared and those go viral, ladies and gentlemen, that — for that news cycle — that becomes who we are,” Difanis said.
He stressed that the Realtor brand is not something a member can shed like an overcoat after leaving the office.
“To be a keyboard bigot at night and then go to the office the next day and and claim that that in no way impedes my ability to live up to both the letter and the spirit of my Article 10 obligations — in a vacuum, just forgetting history — that’s not plausible,” Difanis said.
He pointed out that the Diversity Community was largely comprised of people who historically would have been shut out of both NAR and homeownership.
“We on Professional Standards believe it’s time to mean it when we say that we are Realtors and we pledge to live by a higher standard,” he said.
Difanis noted that some members object to the policy recommendations on free speech grounds.
“We’re a voluntary trade organization,” he said. “We can set a higher standard for our members. We’re not the government. The First Amendment applies to state actors’ ability to limit free speech. There’s plenty of instances already where people lose jobs or suffer other major consequences for engaging in offensive speech.”
Others argue that the policy recommendations are a “knee-jerk reaction” to recent racial unrest and that it’s “too soon,” according to Difanis.
“It feels that way only to those who have very recently started following 2020’s societal and racially-charged unrest. But with respect to too soon, is prohibiting bigoted, often racist, hate speech by Realtors is it too soon relative to adding fair housing to the code in 1974? Is it too soon relative to 46 years? Is it too soon relative to 1968 when fair housing became the law of the land?” he said, noting it took NAR six years to strike discrimination from its code of ethics after the Fair Housing Act.
“Or is it too soon, relative to 401 years ago when we first started importing black people in chains?” he added.
Detractors have also said that the policy proposals go too far, that it will impinge on people’s personal lives. Committee leaders have said that standards enforcers will not be “sniffing around every facet” of a Realtor’s personal life.
“We’ve got pages and pages of guidance and in Professional Standards, the Interpretations and Procedures Advisory Board stands at the ready to offer case studies and additional guidance as circumstances on the ground warrant,” Difanis said.
“We don’t pretend to have a crystal ball and to foresee every, by definition, unforeseeable outcome and circumstance, but we are ready to do course corrections. It’s really how our lane operates.”
Regarding whether the policies are too vague and would attack religious beliefs, Difanis said there was a difference between having a religious belief and weaponizing it to impede access to housing.
“We don’t want to attack anybody’s religious belief,” he said. “If somebody has a religious belief or belongs to an organization that has a particular position on their interpretations of Scripture with respect to, for example, same-sex marriage, that is very different than one of the example posts that have appeared in our meeting materials, where somebody posts on a business Facebook page with the word Realtor in the title of the page: ‘Gays and lesbians are guilty of murder, according to the Scriptures.'”
“It’s a very big difference between having a private religious conviction versus weaponizing and using it to attack,” he continued. “My mom is from Mississippi, her dad, my granddaddy was a Southern Baptist associational missionary. I don’t care how conservative you are in the religious spectrum, discriminating against people and creating a housing crisis and impeding access to housing is not in the public interest. And it certainly doesn’t advance any religious interest that I can think of no matter where you fall on the spectrum.”
While some Realtors argue that when someone is fired for saying bigoted things that the market is taking care of the problem, Difanis disagreed. He recently fired an agent for using a racist slur on Facebook.
“That person was not inactive for even a day,” he said. “That person was re-affiliated a day later and is in fact on the other side of a transaction I’m working right now.”
James Cristbrook, a member of the Diversity Committee who is a married gay man with kids, noted that half of U.S. states do not prohibit housing discrimination against those in the LGBTQ community, so state licensing boards would not do anything in such cases.
That is why Realtors must hold themselves to a higher standard with the new policies, according to Difanis. In such cases, Realtor associations would be able to impose a fine of up to $15,000 and suspend or terminate Realtor membership, he said.
The Diversity Committee ended up passing a motion to support the Professional Standards Committee’s policy recommendations. The former also passed a motion to support changes to NAR’s core standards that will go before the Association Executives Committee on Friday. Core standards are minimum requirements that state and local associations must comply with in order to remain Realtor-affiliated.
Those changes would require that association strategic plans include diversity, equity and inclusion and fair housing components and that associations annually certify that they have conducted or promoted a diversity, equity and inclusion or fair housing activity. They would also require that leadership development and training include “a commitment” to greater diversity, equity and inclusion among the association’s volunteer leadership and “to assess and encourage increased diversity in their leadership.”
If the Association Executives Committee approves the changes, they would go forward to the NAR board of directors for a vote on Nov. 13.