Avoid potential fair housing violations in listings

By Kim Shindle | April 30, 2013 | 4 min. read

Using words that reference a protected class in listing advertisements can cause fair housing problems for Realtors®, according to Hank Lerner, Esq., PAR’s director of Professional Practice.

“Fair housing violations in listings happen when an agent is trying to be helpful in describing who might want to live in a specific house or neighborhood,” Lerner said. “Agents need to remember that it’s not their job to decide what house is best suited for a client; it’s the client’s decision.”

TREND MLS, located in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, implemented its own software to help flag words in remarks that are questionable or prohibited several years ago, according to Sharon Lukens, TREND’s director of design and communication.

The custom-built tool flags words before the listing is finished being entered. Agents are either not allowed to enter the word at all or stopped and warned, but they have the option to continue if they feel the word is acceptable.

“We work to help agents from making a very serious error before it happens,” Lukens said. “TREND takes a proactive approach and does a lot to educate agents about the rules and regulations they are required to follow.”

Bill Hammill, director of education for Real Estate Educators Real Estate School, teaches fair housing to Realtors®. “Realtors® need to watch how they respond to clients asking questions,” he said. “If the buyer asks ‘are there children in the neighborhood,’ a Realtor® may want to respond. But familial status is a protected class under fair housing regulations and if it’s perceived that you are driving a buyer toward a neighborhood or steering them away from a neighborhood that could be viewed as discriminatory.”

Hammill said that licensees inadvertently use words and phrases such as a ‘walk to churches,’ ‘great schools,’ ‘super yard for children,’ ‘retired/adults,’ — when not associated to specifically designed as housing for older persons — in their MLS descriptions and advertisements.

Della D. Csehoski, association executive for the Cambria-Somerset Association of Realtors®, has been manually reviewing members’ listings for potential fair housing violations for years. “We notify the Realtor® and if they don’t fix the listing immediately, we pull it until it has been corrected,” she said.

The association’s MLS is in the process of getting software for the MLS that will automatically review content, notify the agent, broker and the association that there may be a problem with a listing. “We want to make sure our members are careful. They should be using words to describe the property, not the people,” she said. “The two words that can get a Realtor® in trouble are perfect for…’.”

The West Penn Multi-List recently introduced a Prohibited Words program which looks for offensive words in listings, according to Barbara Kohl, chief operating officer for West Penn. “The program calls attention to certain words, flags the word and notifies agents so they are able to remove it,” she explained. “The program puts the listing in a hold pattern until the agent removes the word or contacts us to discuss the word.”

The Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors® MLS is also implementing a new program that will catch words that may be a problem.

“At first we’ll just be reviewing the words, watching the trends and discovering if people are using words they shouldn’t be, like ‘child-friendly’,” said Justin Porembo, director of government affairs for the Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors®.

Michael Naratil, director of the Lehigh Valley MLS, said, “We’ll eventually have the option to run reports and remove a word to keep the listing from being in violation. Then we’ll be able to notify the member so he is aware the word was removed.

This software is being implemented as further protection for Lehigh Valley Realtors®. The association was able to install a list of restricted words from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) and they’re able to update the list as needed.

“We’re implementing this as part of the Broker’s Pledge in our Fair Housing Plan,” Porembo said. “We making sure that our members are educated and understand the Fair Housing law.”

Editor’s note: You can view PAR’s fair housing resources here.

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