Searches and Real Estate Practices Advance Housing Segregation

ACORN International Anti-Racism Housing
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New Orleans      In some countries, like the United Kingdom, a significant part of ACORN’s work involves going toe to toe with real estate companies and their agencies, that are called “letting” agencies across the pond, as in “to let” or to rent.  Like mortgage brokers in the home markets, these folks are often the behind-the-scenes facilitators and don’t get the attention for their role in some grievous problems.  Mortgage brokers’ role in the 2007-8 real estate meltdown in the United States has still not been adequately assessed, we would argue, but don’t get me started.   Several essays in Poverty & Race, the publication of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, written by academics Maria Krysan and Allison Bethel, focus on the role of the real estate industry and its agents in perpetuating segregation in some interesting ways that could have a very different impact.

            The authors make the case that more is needed than simply enforcing non-discrimination “in the sale and advertising of housing” in order “to tackle the inequities created by residential segregation.”  Partly, this is true from their research in the ways that people direct their own housing searches, often inadvertently self-segregating in making their choices of neighborhoods where they are seeking housing.  Their information “comes from three primary sources:  our social networks, lived experiences, and the media” according to the researchers, and, as they state flatly, all of this information is “racialized.”  Sadly, this not only seems true, but almost common sense.  People look where they know, and where they think housing might be affordable and comfortable for them, more often than not, becoming “birds of a feather, flocking together.”

            Real estate agents come into the picture through “steering” or directing renters and buyers into certain neighborhoods.  Before the passage of the 1972 Fair Housing Act, “steering was expressly authorized in ethical guidelines for real estate agents” in order to direct families to neighborhoods where they would not reduce property values, which was the topline cover for racial redlining.  Steering is still a problem. “HUD’s most recent national housing audit (2010) found that steering was one of the most common race-based housing discriminations in the US.”

            Interestingly, to offset this problem, the authors argue in essence that agents essentially need to steer better and differently.  HUD-certified housing counselors “are authorized to discuss fair housing, housing selection, and mobility – all factors that contribute to neighborhood diversity.”  The authors want them to do so more aggressively.

            Bethel and Krysan advocate a frontal attack on real estate agents to offset segregation.  Their approach would involve:

  • Fair housing education for real estate agents.
  • Expanding real estate agent education about integrated neighborhoods in particular
  • Locating real estate offices and modifying staffing practices to reach these goals
  • Allowing real estate agents to promote integrated communities and “break the cone of silence.”
  • Revisiting targeted advertising regulation
  • Incentivizing real estate agents to implement and practice pro-integration strategies

Yes, this seems the opposite of taking radical steps to increasingly desegregate housing, but if you really think about it, real estate agents are the foot soldiers pulling people into housing choices.  Rather than seeing them as irrelevant, enablers, or even the enemy, maybe Krysan and Bethel are right?  Turning them around so that they are moving people into integrated neighborhoods, rather than segregated areas, might make a difference.  Finding agencies and agents willing to take the first steps to implement a different practice to achieve better results might be the hardest part of this program.