What Does the REALTOR® Code of Ethics Say About the Fair Housing Act?


By Vivian Vanderwerd
DIRECTOR OF PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS
Orange County REALTORS®

But what if a client asks you to withhold showings under certain circumstances? Don’t you have a fiduciary duty to do so?

When I was asked to write this article, my initial reaction was to refuse the assignment. After all, many readers of this magazine are far more knowledgeable in the area of fair housing than I. However, being a glutton for research, I decided to dig deeper into the subject.

I asked several top-producing agents, “What are you seeing in the market that may be related to the Fair Housing Act?”

The answer I received went something like this, “Other than service animals and sober living homes, there is an uptick in the number of sellers who are asking their agents to withhold showings from certain groups of people.”

“Really!” I responded in amazement. “Based on what?”

I found their responses stunning: “Race, national origin, and familial status.”

The sellers’ reasons for making this request included the following: “I’ve seen how they’ve changed the culture of the neighborhood, and I don’t like it.” “They will make the house multigenerational, and it’ll be a hassle for my neighbors.” “Where are they from?” “I don’t trust them.”

I thought that we had had this discussion a few decades ago and that the matter had been addressed by federal law; but apparently, it’s time for a refresher.

Pursuant to the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968), it is illegal to discriminate in the sale, lease, or rental of housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

Further, Article 10 of the National Association of REALTORS® Code of Ethics states, “REALTORS® shall not deny equal professional services to any person for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. REALTORS® shall not be parties to any plan or agreement to discriminate against a person or persons on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” This article unequivocally endorses and supports the Fair Housing Act and makes REALTORS® accountable for violations.

Armed with this knowledge, how should you, as a REALTOR®, respond if you are asked with a wink and a nod to engage in an act of discrimination? After all, the person asking the question is your client and you do have a fiduciary duty here, right?

Wrong!

As a REALTOR®, you are obligated to inform your client that you cannot and will not engage in any business practice that discriminates against any class that is protected by the Fair Housing Act. It is not only unethical for a REALTOR® to do so; it is illegal.

Be brutally honest with your client. Advise your client that the request itself is in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Perhaps now is a good time to use the phrase “federal offense.” Should the client repeat the request, advise your broker, discuss the possibility of terminating the contractual relationship, and document your related conversations and interactions.

Often, conversations of this kind can be avoided altogether by letting the client know, in advance, how committed you are as a REALTOR® to upholding the values of the Code of Ethics and the letter of the Fair Housing Law.

But then there is always that one client...

What are you seeing out there? I’d like to hear about your experiences.