Kurt Thompson

Discrimination is a concern throughout the nation and the recent study  “Qualified Renters Need Not Apply: Race and Voucher Discrimination in the Metro Boston Housing Market” highlights its impact on some real estate rental practices in Boston. The study by Suffolk University Law School set out to determine whether someone’s race or housing voucher status prevented them from getting appointments to see properties, obtain a rental application and learn about what financial incentives properties offer. They also tested how levels of service differed based on race or voucher status. 

The results, which found Black participants faced discrimination more than 70 percent of the time, were disheartening. The first Fair Housing laws were passed in 1866, but those laws were legally cumbersome to enforce, and in 1934 the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration. Initial guidance included provisions for segregated housing.  

As injustices were exposed and desegregation took place across the United States, in 1968 the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed which prohibits agents in a real estate transaction from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin.  

Massachusetts Has Strong Laws 

Everyone should be afforded the opportunity of housing choice.  

Massachusetts, which has some of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country, has expanded the list of protected classes beyond the requirements of the federal law to also include gender, ancestry, genetic information, marital status, veteran or active military status, age (i.e., children) and source of income (i.e., Section 8 voucher).  

The HUD Section 8 program provides vouchers for rent payments made to landlords. In Massachusetts, all landlords must accept Section 8 vouchers. This is not the case in many other states, where landlords in some cases can determine on their own whether or not to participate in the program. All landlords must agree to have their property inspected on an annual basis and must complete any repairs required to meet HUD standards within a certain amount of time. The rent charged by landlords must be in-line with or below other similar units and rent increases can only happen once yearly with prior notice to the local housing authority.  

Fifty-two years after the Federal Fair Housing Act and having strong laws in Massachusetts, how is discrimination by housing continuing to be an issue? Policies and laws cannot be the only answer to this problem. Education and raising awareness about these issues must be a part of the solution.  

Consumers Must Know Their Rights 

Consumers should also know the laws that protect them and where to seek assistance if their rights are being infringed, but unfortunately not all do 

Consumers should be prepared to know their rights and some tips to help their success in a tight real estate market. Renters should be clear about their needs, start and end dates for their desired lease, and information ready to complete a rental application. Consumers should feel comfortable that they can call the managing broker of the agent and share their concerns and perhaps be assigned to a different agent to assist. 

Anyone can also file a complaint on any agent (whether they are a Realtor or not) with the state Board of Registration of Real Estate Brokers and Salespersons. The Real Estate Board licenses candidates who meet the regulatory requirements for real estate brokers and salespersons. The board regulates real estate schools and agent curriculum and contracts with a testing vendor to provide licensing exams. The board also protects consumers by investigating and disciplining agents who violate licensing laws and regulations.  

Realtor associations can and do play an important role in reducing and preventing discrimination. 

If an agent is a Realtor, they are not just subject to state and federal laws; they are also subject to abiding by the National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics. The code is composed of 17 articles outlining ethical practice of real estate. Article 10 focuses specifically on fair housing issues. “Realtors shall not deny equal professional services to any person,” it reads, for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. Realtors are likewise barred from discriminating against any employee on the basis of the same characteristics and cannot be party to any agreement or plan to discriminate. 

A duty of membership is to have training on the Code of Ethics every two to three years, which includes a review of Article 10 and Fair Housing issues. If a consumer has concerns in relation to how they were treated in a real estate transaction, they can file a complaint with the local Realtor association.  

We need to do better and hold all real estate professionals accountable for discriminatory actions. By working together, we can. 

Kurt Thompson is the 2020 president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and a broker associate at Keller Williams Realty North Central in Leominster. 

Education, Awareness Key to Reducing Racism in Real Estate

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min