April is Fair Housing Month: a Reminder for Caution

by By Michael McDonagh, Esq., MAR General Counsel | Mar 05, 2014
Since the late 1960s, April has been dedicated as “Fair Housing Month” by the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of course, REALTORS® know that fair housing compliance is part of the everyday business of operating a real estate office. However, by recognizing Fair Housing Month, NAR helps to remind practitioners about the situations of which to remain cautious.

Since the late 1960s, April has been dedicated as “Fair Housing Month” by the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of course, REALTORS® know that fair housing compliance is part of the everyday business of operating a real estate office. However, by recognizing Fair Housing Month, NAR helps to remind practitioners about the situations of which to remain cautious.

The source of our guidance on fair housing primarily comes from The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Fair Housing Act of 1968, Massachusetts State law, and Article 10 of the REALTOR® Code of Ethics. In fact, Article 10 of the Code was amended as recently as 2011 and 2013 to now include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

The following are a few highlighted areas of practice where complaints and violations most often occur.

Rental Housing

Rentals remain the primary area of fair housing complaints and violations. Specifically, families with young children continue to be denied housing due to a landlord’s refusal to make the apartment lead safe. Refusing to rent to a family with children is a violation of both fair housing laws and Massachusetts lead laws. Similarly, landlords who refuse tenants based upon their receipt of public or “Section 8” assistance often find themselves in violation.

From time to time, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the two state agencies that enforce fair housing laws in Massachusetts, will post summaries of recent cases from which very important lessons can be learned. Often times these cases will involve real estate licensees and not just landlords. Fines and penalties for violations of fair housing laws can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. It is encouraged that you check these websites periodically to keep yourself up-to-speed.

Neighborhood Steering

Although rentals remain in the spotlight for risk, caution must be used in listing and selling as well. Always avoid steering customers and clients to particular neighborhoods based up the ethnic, religious, or racial makeup of a community. When advertising a property for sale, remember to describe the property that you are selling and not theindividual buyer who you think might be attracted to that home.

Do Not Discriminate, with these Exceptions

A predominant fair housing guideline is to always avoid showing preference to a customer or client based upon their status in a protected class and always treat everyone equally. However, it should be noted that there are cases where discrimination can be legal. Take two common examples: a landlord can legally discriminate against a prospective tenant for a variety of reasons, including a criminal background, poor credit, or because they smoke cigarettes. This is not illegal so long as the landlord screens all tenants with the same methods or criteria and is not basing their decision on the prospect’s status in a protected class.

Reduce Your Risk and Comply

Occasionally, the state and federal government will send fair housing testers to real estate brokerage offices. To avoid complaints or violations, it is recommended that you do the following: be familiar with fair housing laws and stay up to date on any changes; be sure that your office has a fair housing policy and ensure that your office displays the appropriate fair housing notices available through HUD and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).

An annual training requirement for all brokers and salespersons is also highly recommended. If questions arise, authorized users should call the MAR Legal Hotline at 800-370-5342.

Fair Housing Declaration 
I agree to: 

  • Provide equal professional service without regard to the race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin or sexual orientation of any prospective client, customer, or of the residents of any community. 
  • Keep informed about fair housing law and practices, improving my clients’ and customers’ opportunities and my business. 
  • Develop advertising that indicates that everyone is welcome and no one is excluded;, expanding my client’s and customer’s opportunities to see, buy, or lease property. 
  • Inform my clients and customers about their rights and responsibilities under the fair housing laws by providing brochures and other information.
  • Document my efforts to provide professional service, which will assist me in becoming a more responsive and successful REALTOR®.
  • Refuse to tolerate non-compliance.
  • Learn about those who are different from me, and celebrate those differences.
  • Take a positive approach to fair housing practices and aspire to follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law. 
  • Develop and implement fair housing practices for my firm to carry out the spirit of this declaration.

    Promulgated by the National Association of REALTORS®