Providing some information to a client may seem helpful, but certain information may be considered steering or a violation of the national Fair Housing Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Both the national and state laws prohibit discrimination based on age, ancestry, color, disability, familial status, national origin, race, religion or sex.
It’s important to remember to treat everyone the same, according to Stephanie Chapman, the director of Housing and Commercial Property of the PA Human Relations Commission.
“It’s a fine line for Realtors® because you are in a customer-service industry,” Chapman said. “Individuals have the right to choose where they want to live. As Realtors®, you need to listen to their requests but not assume you know what’s best for them.”
For example, if a Jewish client asks to live within walking distance of a synagogue, a Realtor® can highlight properties within that area. “A Realtor® cannot decide that because the client looks Middle Eastern, he should only show the client homes near a mosque. That’s not your decision to make. It’s considered steering and that’s a violation of the Fair Housing Act,” Chapman said.
She suggests in a case like this, it’s always best to offer the client more options than he requested. “If there are only two properties within the specific area he requested, you may want to expand the search and offer options that are still within the area and explain that you’ve added to the search,” she said.
“I think many times a landlord or Realtor® thinks he’s being helpful when he tells a family with small children that there’s only a fourth-floor apartment available and they won’t want it because they’ll have to walk up and down stairs with children. That too is considered steering because you’re denying a potential client a place to live based on your judgment and sending them someplace else. That’s illegal. There may be reasons the family wants to live in that apartment and they have the right to decide where they want to live,” Chapman said.
One of the fastest growing areas of complaints filed with the PHRC is related to persons with disabilities. “We have a larger aging and returning disabled veterans population and it continues to grow each year,” Chapman said. “This is the one area where you are required to make special accommodations or modifications to give a person with a disability access to a property.”
Steering away from specific schools or suggesting they aren’t good or are “urbanized” also raises red flags. Chapman cautions that talking about school districts can also be considered steering. “This is a very gray area and a real estate agent can be held liable for steering people to a specific area. You might send the client to a site or link to a site that has demographics about schools in the region but in the end, the decision is for the homebuyer to make not the real estate agent,” Chapman said.
Recently a community action group conducted fair housing testing in the Lehigh Valley and alleged that some real estate agents were treating white clients differently than African American and Hispanic clients. For example, one agent allegedly asked a Hispanic buyer to provide a prequalification letter, but did not require a white client with the same financial background to be prequalified.
“When an agent treats people differently, that’s discrimination,” Chapman said. “If you require prequalification, it should be from all clients, not just certain ones.”
In response to the recent study, the Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors® has created an action plan to reinforce a zero tolerance policy on non-compliance with the Fair Housing Act, according to Ryan Conrad, CEO of LVAR. “One alleged case of non-compliance is one too many,” he said. “Our action plan will reinforce NAR’s Code of Ethics to increase Fair Housing compliance and remove barriers to homeownership.