Fair Housing: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Rights
Fair Housing: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Rights
As REALTORS®, we resolutely support equal opportunity in housing. Fair housing means everyone has the right to rent or buy shelter without being limited or discriminated against because of race, color, religion, gender identity, disability, familial status, national origin, or sexual orientation.
Abio’s commitment goes beyond upholding fair housing laws. We believe in promoting equal housing opportunities by advancing homeownership for underrepresented groups. We educate our buyers about their rights and equitable loan programs that encourage first-time homeownership. We inform our sellers about how biases – conscious or unconscious – impact individuals, families, and neighborhoods.
Abio believes diversity and inclusion spawn thriving communities. Fair housing makes us stronger, together.
In this post, we will explore what fair housing is, the laws that protect buyers and sellers from discrimination, where to go if you think your fair housing rights are being violated, and whether buyers' love letters to sellers violate fair housing laws.
What is fair housing?
Fair housing is the right of every individual to be treated equally when it comes to renting, buying, or financing a home regardless of their race, color, religion, gender identity, disability, familial status, national origin, or sexual orientation. The roots of housing discrimination in the U.S. run long and deep, which is why we rely on state and federal laws today to protect buyers, sellers, and renters from biases based on their personal characteristics.
Which laws protect home buyers and home sellers from discrimination?
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 is the primary federal law protecting equal opportunities in housing. The legislation came on the heels of the Civil Rights Act and was hard won during one of the most difficult periods in American history that included the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots, and the Vietnam War. It also was a time when returning military vets of color and surviving family members of killed infantrymen found themselves still barred from buying or renting in certain areas because of their race or country of origin – and regardless of their service and sacrifice. The Fair Housing Act was a crucial step toward crushing long-held unfair housing practices
Next came the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, originally drafted to protect women from gender-based discrimination in lending and later amended to include broader protections.
In California, additional legislation protects buyers and renters: the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which reinforces federal legislation, and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by business establishments, including those in the real estate industry.
History of unfair housing practices in the Bay Area
According to a report by the HAAS institute, the history of racially exclusionary housing in the Bay Area dates as far back as the 1800s and as recently as the 1970s, involving institutional efforts by developers and legislators.
Beginning in the late 1800s, cities across the nation adopted discriminatory zoning laws, and San Francisco was one of the first with the 1890 Bingham Ordinance. It required all Chinese people to move their homes and businesses to an area reserved for slaughterhouses and “unhealthful” businesses. Fortunately, a federal court invalidated the ordinance soon after its adoption. But that didn't staunch future efforts to restrict housing.
In the early 1900s, developers began playing a critical role by creating racially restricted subdivisions. For example, a 1912 pamphlet by the Berkeley Highlands touted how buying property in the Berkeley hills was a good investment because private deed restrictions made it the “cream” of North Berkeley with “No Asiatics or Negroes.” Racially restrictive covenants and homeowner association bylaws became increasingly common and, surprisingly, remained on the books long after fair housing laws took effect.
A 2019 Mercury News report about racial covenants quoted multiple home buyers from Orinda to Oakland who were shocked to discover old covenants still in their property records. In 2020, the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed a mixed-race East Bay couple – a white woman and man of Chinese descent – who were similarly stunned when they discovered a decades-old convenant on the Lafayette property they were interested in purchasing.
Fast forward to 2022, when California legislators passed a law requiring county officials to find and purge the racist language from all old property documents. It's a massive yet crucial undertaking. For Contra Costa County, for example, the task reportedly means sifting through 28 million records.
Recent fair housing cases in the Bay Area
While great progress has been made in fair housing enforcement, challenges remain. For example, in March 2023, a Black couple in Marin City settled their lawsuit against a real estate appraiser who they alleged grossly undervalued their house based on their race. In the suit, Paul Austin and Tenisha Tate-Austin said they sought the appraisal in 2020 from Janette Miller of Perotti Real Estate Appraisals after significantly renovating their home and preparing to refinance their mortgage. When the appraisal came back at $995,000, far below what the Austins expected, they reportedly grew suspicious and sought a second appraisal from a different company.
This time, the couple said in court papers, they had a white friend pretend to own their home and removed all family photos and African American artwork. This appraisal came back at $1.4 million. Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, who represented the Austins, said in a statement that this was “a dramatic example of how an unfairly low appraisal can affect your ability to access a loan with good terms and build generational wealth.” The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Additional stories about alleged low-ball appraisals also made the news in Oakland in recent years.
What home buyers need to know about fair housing
Home buyers need to know the law and recognize the signs of fair housing violations. A few examples:
- A real estate agent steers you from buying a house in a certain neighborhood.
- A bank refuses to lend money to you, even though you are a creditworthy applicant, because the home is in a particular neighborhood (known as “redlining”).
- You are pregnant and a lender refuses to offer a loan until you return from maternity leave.
- A seller tells you they won't sell you their home because you have children.
What home sellers need to know about fair housing
Home sellers need to be aware of the fair housing laws mentioned above and ensure that they treat every prospective buyer equally and without discrimination. Also:
- Carefully choose the language used in advertising that might be seen as discriminatory. For example, avoid describing the property as a great “family home” or conveniently located “near churches.”
- Watch out for appraisal bias. The Brookings Institution think tank estimated that homes in majority-Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 on average compared to comparable homes in non-majority-Black areas, according to a 2018 study of major metro areas in the U.S. In the SF Bay Area, the amount was much higher – about $164,400.
Do buyers "love letters" to sellers violate fair housing laws?
In competitive housing markets like the Bay Area, prospective buyers often write “love letters” to sellers so they stand out from the crowd. They commonly introduce themselves, gush about their crush on the home, and even include photos of themselves, their kids, and pets to tug on heartstrings.
And those letters often can work in the buyer's favor. We've seen sellers swayed by a cute dog photo, a child's drawing, and a newlyweds' story about buying their first home.
However, sellers should note these letters could be a liability, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. NAR discourages sellers from viewing letters on the chance they might lead to bias (unconscious, conscious, real, or perceived) when deciding who to sell to.
At Abio, we advise buyers who still want to write personal letters (and many do) to focus on their love for the home and neighborhood and avoid including photos. Then it’s up to the sellers and their agents to view it or not.
Where to go if you think your fair housing rights are being violated
If you think your fair housing rights are being violated, there are several resources available:
- File a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by calling 1-800-669-9777 or visiting HUD's website.
- File a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)
- Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California is a nonprofit providing free comprehensive fair housing counseling, complaint investigation, and assistance in filing housing discrimination complaints with HUD or DFEH.
Fair housing benefits everyone, and we know REALTORS® play an essential role in building diverse, inclusive, and thriving neighborhoods. We take our responsibility very seriously. Want to learn more about fair housing resources? Contact us at 888-400-ABIO (2246) or firstname.lastname@example.org.