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What You Need to Know About Equal Housing Law

Earlier this month, Newsweek released the disheartening results of a 3-year undercover study.

The study focused on real estate agents and brokers across the Long Island area, and found that while these agents may be “all smiles” with some buyers, they would nevertheless treat people of color differently from white people. Only two agencies, The Corcoran Group and Daniel Gale Sotheby, were found to treat all people consistently at all times.

The Federal Fair Housing Act has been in effect since 1968. It covers anyone involved in the real estate industry, including brokers, agents, mortgage lenders, and landlords.

It states, among other things: “It shall be unlawful to (a) to refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate fort he sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin, (b) to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.”

In response to the Newsweek investigation:

The investigation also found that training routinely offered to people in the real estate industry is inadequate at best.

Here are some actions to avoid when selling or renting a property.

#1) Don’t answer questions or volunteer information about school or neighborhood quality.

All too often, this “information” is coded language. Whites are told “the schools are dismal” or “there’s a lot of crime” to steer them out of integrated neighborhoods, whereas many fail to give People of Color the same information. 

What if buyers or renters ask for this information? Simply state that different people have different definitions of what makes a “safe” neighborhood or a “good” school, and encourage people to conduct their own investigations and make their own decisions. You aren’t an expert in crime or school quality to begin with, so why offer the information?

Don’t discuss the racial make-up of neighborhoods at all.

#2) If it’s a requirement for one, it’s a requirement for all.

If you’re going to ask one buyer for a prequalification letter before you’ll start showing houses, then ask all of them, without fail. If you’re going to demand any renters show their driver’s licenses before seeing a unit, then ask all of them, without fail.

All too often agents were imposing restrictions on PoC buyers, demanding financial proof they never demanded from white buyers. They also requested ID from PoCs and not whites. Some of them demanded PoC sign exclusive representation agreements but didn’t even mention them to whites.

#3) If the home or unit are on the market, they’re on the market, period.

You can’t tell one person the unit is already rented or the house is already under contract if it isn’t. Don’t ever lie about the status of a property, especially if you plan to give information about the property’s availability to someone else.

If the property is available to one person, it needs to be available to every single person you might talk to about it.

#4) Give every person every listing that meets their criteria.

If the buyer is looking for a $500,000 to $800,000 home with at least three bedrooms somewhere on Long Island, then find every last home that meets those criteria and give the list to the person sitting in front of you. Let them decide what they do or don’t want to see, and why. 

If they want to put a home under contract, put it under contract. For one thing, this can only benefit you. You’ll make sales faster if you give everyone things they want to see. 

#5) If you’re renting, be careful about service animals.

Refusing to rent to a disabled person because they have a service animal is also a violation of the FHA. A service animal is not a pet.

Your “belief” that someone is “faking it to smuggle a pet in” is not sufficient cause to deny the rental.

Penalties for Violating the Fair Housing Act

No doubt many of the agents pinpointed by the Newsweek investigation are headed for some unpleasant surprises. There are civil penalties for FHA violations. These include $19,797 for a first violation, $49,467 for a second violation in a 5-year period, and $98,935 for a third violation within a 7-year period. 

The courts may also award punitive damages and force you to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. They may award non-economic damages for humiliation, mental anguish, or psychological injuries caused by your actions. 

In short, it’s just not worth it to engage in discrimination.

See also:

Pets in the Apartment: How a Long Island Landlord Can Add a Pet Policy

Did You Just Lose the Right to Get Rid of Fido?

What Does It Cost to Hire a Long Island Residential Real Estate Lawyer?