I watched most of the New York State Senate Joint Public Hearing: Housing Discrimination on Long Island held on Sept. 17, 2020. You can watch the videos here. If you speed them up a bit, it’s possible to watch them all in three or four hours.
The hearings centered around the Newsday investigation in which real estate agents were caught on video appearing to steer fair housing testers. The testers were posing as homebuyers.
I believe the agents were pretty typical and that a fair housing tester could find the same types of behavior from real estate agents in any town, from any company, anywhere.
A few things really stood out and resonated with me as I watched the testimony. First of all, Long Island Realtors did not admit to any type of steering or fair housing violations. I got to thinking about this, and I can’t think of a time when a real estate agent has ever admitted to any kind of wrongdoing. It just doesn’t happen.
Another thing that stood out is that the brokers all testified that their agents didn’t do anything wrong, and that’s why none of them were disciplined. There was one senator who appeared to be totally disgusted with the brokers because of the way they defended their agents.
Some of the Realtors who were questioned by the senators during the hearing were hostile and combative — and not to mention, rude. Many took the opportunity to make a statement about their innocence, even though that wasn’t what the hearing was about.
None of this is surprising. If you’ve ever had to tell a broker about something that an agent did that was illegal, mean, horrible or stupid, you get it. Brokers almost universally stand by their agents, unless there’s negative publicity that could hurt their company. It could be that they hate confrontations, or maybe they just don’t want to risk losing a revenue generator.
The New York State senators seemed surprised that the brokers did not see the behavior of their agents as problematic and that some of them supervise hundreds of agents in multiple offices. I think the senators have a different definition of supervision than real estate brokers have.
Most brokers provide training and meetings, and expect agents to ask questions. But agents don’t really ask their brokers if they have a question. They solicit advice from people they don’t know on Facebook.
As an industry, we have a huge opportunity. We could become fair housing ambassadors in our companies and communities. Instead of being defensive, we could be advocates for fair housing.
In 2020, Realtors are no longer gatekeepers of information. If people find houses for sale by searching for them online, they probably won’t face steering or illegal discrimination. This may also help eliminate housing discrimination.
In the old days, agents controlled and guarded information about homes for sale. But now that people can find homes for sale all on their own, some don’t understand why real estate agents are needed.
That said, if real estate salespeople acted as fair housing ambassadors and taught fair housing to clients and the community — that would add value. Agents could be the people who make a difference.
There are so many fair housing teachable moments that never get taught because we don’t talk about fair housing. We just take courses, memorize dates and hope our clients aren’t fair housing testers.
The current mandatory fair housing education that’s given to real estate agents is pretty bad. I’ve taken it at least a dozen times in the past 20 years. I still haven’t really memorized the dates that various fair housing laws were passed at the federal, state and city level.
But what if real estate agents were taught how to respond when a client wants a neighborhood or school district recommendation?
If lawmakers see Realtors as part of the problem, they’re going to make some changes. Maybe in New York, real estate companies will have to be smaller or organized differently. It would be better for all Realtors if we were seen as part of the solution.
Realtors have a unique opportunity to be fair housing ambassadors who take the lead in the real estate industry and their communities when it comes to promoting fair housing. Realtors could be a large, nationwide proactive force that might even be able to make a difference and help end housing discrimination.