Fair Housing FAQ

The following frequently asked questions serve to provide answers to some of the most common questions real estate agents may have as they relate to serving clients in a fair and equal manner and to ensure that they are following fair housing laws.  The answers to these questions were formulated through collaboration with Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a private, nonprofit fair housing agency in the greater Cincinnati area.

Question: You are working with a seller who has not been able to sell their beautiful four bed room home.   They decide they will offer it as a rental and during the discussion with you about leasing they tell you they do not want to rent to anyone with children over the age of five.

Answer:

  • You must inform the seller immediately that this request is a violation of fair housing laws.
  • Point them to the section of the listing contract that spells out the protected classes.
  • Explain that familial status includes any children 17 or younger and renting or leasing does not negate these laws.
  • Make sure they understand that to deny any family the right to lease your home, if they qualify, would place both the seller and you in violation of fair housing laws.

Question:  What is the objection to providing racial, religious, ethnic, school or safety data to my clients?  I think that is a valuable service I should be providing especially when I am working with a relocation transferee.  Don’t I have a fiduciary responsibility to provide this information?

Answer:

  • Real estate agents should not respond to questions which are outside of their area of expertise.  Their specialties usually include listing, selling and valuing property.  A professional response might be:

“That question is outside my area of expertise.   However, I take pride in the fact that I can be a resource for a qualified and knowledgeable expert source for any of your questions. “

  • Real estate professionals who follow this approach will minimize their fair housing liability.  Agents should not answer questions about schools, religious/ethnic data, safety/crime etc.
  • Below are links that real estate professionals can provide to their clients to have all of their questions answered.

Ohio.gov Department of Education  – get a report card  for each school in Ohio based on desired criteria.

Housing Opportunities Made Equal – will help clients with questions they may have about neighborhoods and fair housing information.

Hamilton County Sheriff – provides crime statistics and registered sex offender information  for Hamilton County.

Cincinnati Police Department – provides crime statistics and registered sex offender information for the City of Cincinnati.

Question: If a real estate professional screens their calls and e-mails and doesn’t reply to consumers based on their dialect, accent or name, is this an illegal discriminatory practice and if so, how is discrimination proved?

Answer:

  • The process of “testing” will reveal an illegal discriminatory practice whether it is an in person or through some other form of communication.
  • All persons requesting real estate service should receive the same level of treatment.   This treatment should include the same friendliness through a phone greeting, e-mail or personal contact.
  • If a pattern of different treatment is identified and documented a formalized complaint may be warranted.  Such patterns may include discouraging prospects, denying that housing is available or quoting different terms and conditions.

Question: If a buyer has a mobility limiting physical disability, what is the agent’s responsibility when showing them properties that may not be easily accessible?

Answer:

  • The real estate professional should let a person with a disability know what homes are available and describe them as they would for any other buyer.
  • It is not the real estate professionals responsibility to make arrangements to transport prospects physically into a dwelling if the prospect is not able to do so themselves.
  • It is not appropriate to discourage a buyer with a disability from viewing or buying a home that the may be difficult for them to access.

Question: Why should I be concerned about fair housing when I work in an area where there are very few minorities?

Answer: 
As a real estate professional, you should be concerned about fair housing compliance and making sure that you are following the letter of the law.  Every consumer you encounter is in a protected class under the Fair Housing Act.  Federal and state laws apply whenever there is a discriminatory act.  Your risk of being charged with discrimination are the same regardless of whether there are many, a few, or no minority customers in your service area.   Fair housing violations occur when white buyers are steered away from integrated neighborhoods or when people with disabilities are told they can’t make modifications to a condo or rental property or when familes with children are denied access to leased properties.

Question:  What groups of persons are considered to be “protected classes” under the federal Fair Housing Law?

Answer: 
The Fair Housing Act, which is the federal law governing housing discrimination, includes the following seven protected classes:  race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status.

Question:  How do I handle a minority buyer who wants to see homes that are plainly beyond his/her price range?

Answer:
The same way you would handle any buyer in that situation.  Home buyers occasionally want to consider properties out of their price range.  If your response to buyers varies based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, family status or national origin, you could be charged with discrimination.   In the process of qualifying the buyer there should be a discussion on current lending guidelines and a determination of what price range they can afford.  Then when this type of issue comes up you will be able to remind them that the pricing is out of their pre-selected price range.  Remember, a consistent pattern of practice and good record keeping will help to protect you if a buyer feels they have been discriminated against.

Question: For safety reasons, I ask for a driver’s license before working with a new prospect.  Are there any fair housing issues here?

Answer: 
Asking for photo ID is okay as long as your are consistent and flexible.  Real estate agents have established a policy requesting identification from prospects for safety reasons or to verify identity.  Fair housing laws do not prohibit such practice as long as the request is not based on a prospect’s protected class.  For example, requiring ID only from people who appear to be immigrants would be discriminatory.  Requiring a specific form of photo ID- such as a driver’s license my be discriminatory because it could have a disproportionate impact on members of certain protected classes, such as people with disabilities or immigrants from other countries who may not have a driver’s license.  Remember, a consistent pattern of practice and good record keeping will help to protect you if a buyer feels they have been discriminated against.

Question:  “I am not prejudice, but I really don’t want to work with a client who looks poor, drives a bad car, etc.  In my experience, they have lousy credit and it’s a waste of time to take them around.  And let’s be honest, many of them happen to be racial minorities.  Do I have to work with people like that?”

Answer:  Some of the most credit worthy people like to dress down.  At times, some individuals who look okay can turn out to be your worst credit nightmare.   When you make assumptions based on observations alone, not only might you lose out on a good prospect, you also open yourself up to a potential fair housing complaint.   You should treat all clients the same way by screening them using non-discriminatory criteria.   It is okay to only work with people who have certain credit scors and financial qualifications.  Just make sure you determine that before you think they don’t meet your criteria.  Don’t forget to document your interactions with all prospects to keep a record of why you decide not to work with someone.  Remember, a consistent pattern of practice and good record keeping will help to protect you if a buyer feels they have been discriminated against.

Question:  What is the “housing for older persons” exemption?   Does it stand if a condo association has rules that say that they have an all adult community with residents who are 45 and over?

Answer: 
The Fair Housing Act exemption for senior housing applies only to properties where at least 80% of the units have someone 55 or older at the time a family with children is denied purchase access.  A condo association that sets an age limit that is below 55 and declares it to be an all adult community is violating fair housing law.  An agent who restricts potential buyers based on the “adults only” restriction would also be in violation of the law.

Question:  When buying property, does a buyer have a right to ask for reasonable modifications or accomodations from a condo association or builder?

Answer:
Absolutely!  A buyer has this right, if the buyer is disabled or a member of their household is disabled.  The only thing is that the buyer must pay for the requested reasonable modifications (which are changes in the structure of the unit or common areas).  The reasonable accomodation requests also should be honored, but the housing provider cannot charge for these changes, since they deal with changes in the condo policies, rules and services which are altered to give the person with a disability a full quality of life.

Question:  Is it appropriate to refer a minority buyer to another agent because you believe they are less likely to qualify for a loan and to consummate a purchase?

Answer:
It would be illegal discrimination if the referral was made because of the race of the buyer and assumptions about their economic status.  To do so, is a discriminatory practice because the buyer would not receive the same equal level of professional service as a non-minority buyer.  It is also inappropriate for a real estate professional to assume that all members of a minority group or protected class have the same economic status whether positive or negative.  A broker may wish to initiate positive actions to improve their agents’ skills such as providing various diversity or role play training sessions to make agents more comfortable when they come in contact with anyone as a member of a protected class.  This approach can be very useful in minimizing fair housing liability.

Question:  It is legal for me to refer a non-English speaking client to an agent who speaks the buyers/sellers language?

Answer:
As long as the referral is based on the clients’ language needs, rather than their ethnicity or simply an accent.   When you base your referral on the clients’ request to work in their own language, you should be okay.

Question: My client drives me crazy.  He misses appointments, doesn’t give me promised information and passes up good homes because he’s waiting for a “super deal” that will never happen.  He happens to be Asian.  I want to sever our relationship, but I fear being tagged with a fair housing violation.  What can I do?

Answer:
Fair housing laws do not require you to keep working with problem clients.   As long as your motivation is not discriminatory, go ahead and sever the relationship, letting him know it appears that he is not serious about purchasing property now due to his inability to keep appointments and provide you with promised information.  Let him know you will be happy to assist him when he is ready to actually purchase.   Be sure to document your actions.  If the situation was ever to become the basis for a fair housing complaint, investigators would want to know how you handle non-Asian clients who have the same behaviour.  Remember, a consistent pattern of practice and good record keeping will help to protect you if a buyer feels they have been discriminated against