Fair Housing in the Time of Coronavirus

By Bryan Greene

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This spring is unlike any many real estate professionals have experienced in their lifetimes. Typically a high season for home showings and closings, this spring, many real estate professionals are working from home, helping America "flatten the curve" on the spread of the virus. April was Fair Housing Month, a time when the real estate industry joins the rest of the country in commemorating the landmark civil rights law whose 1968 passage committed the United States to stamping out discrimination and segregation in the housing market. This period of self-quarantine has afforded real estate professionals the time to sharpen their understanding of fair housing through online training and other virtual resources. The novel coronavirus outbreak has also raised novel fair housing issues for real estate professionals.

Fair Housing Month 2020 kept with the spirit of years past, but the execution looked quite different. Long-planned events were cancelled or postponed. Some groups took their events online, like the Frederick County Association of REALTORS® in Maryland, which transformed its annual Fair Housing Month event into a video featuring Frederick's Mayor and the Fair Housing Commission Chair. The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), like in past years, created a poster to mark the month, but also introduced Fair Housing Month @ Home, and curated lists of books, films, podcasts and other resources to form the basis for discussion groups among REALTORS®. Fair Housing Month coincided with the release of "The Banker" for at-home streaming. NAR encouraged members to enjoy the major motion picture while absorbing the history of redlining and mortgage discrimination. Finally, NAR offered free online implicit bias training to help agents recognize and counteract bias, which may be shaping their interactions with customers of different backgrounds. A more in-depth training will follow later in the year.
NAR's offer of implicit bias training was a signature commitment of ACT!, an initiative NAR launched at the beginning of the year to embody its increased commitment to fair housing. ACT—which stands for Accountability, Culture Change and Training—will continue, even as we address COVID-19 and its impact on the economy. The importance of fair housing during this crisis is clear when the best public health advice is to stay at home, yet some members of our communities, especially low-income women of color, are at disproportionate risk of losing the roof over their heads. The stark figures out of Michigan, where African Americans represent 14 percent of the population but 40 percent of deaths from coronavirus (at press time), are throwing into relief how our nation's history of racial segregation undergirds the disparities in the virus' impact. High levels of segregation make African Americans uniquely vulnerable because of geographically-tied pre-existing health conditions, employment that doesn't allow working from home and unequal access to healthcare.
The virus raises other fair housing issues, some of which we are only beginning to grasp. At the start, NAR recognized the situation's potential for increased national origin discrimination, and issued guidance to ensure REALTORS® were offering equal service to all customers. Later, we issued additional guidance advising REALTORS® that COVID-19 may constitute a disability under the Fair Housing Act, and how they should balance public health concerns with fair housing rights. Overall, the situation calls on all real estate professionals to remain vigilant in their obligations to treat all customers fairly.
This pandemic reminds us that we are all bound together, even as we practice "social distancing." It reminds us how the social distancing of past government policy and real estate practices influence our present. As leaders who shape thriving communities, we can and should seize this opportunity to help all our people recover together, making our nation stronger and more prosperous for all.
Bryan Greene is NAR's director of Fair Housing Policy.