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Even though it has long been outlawed, housing discrimination is still alive and well.
Far too often the housing options and information provided to individuals are limited by the prospective homebuyer’s race, religion, or sex. This is a form of discriminaton known as steering, where someone is pushed or “steered” to or away from certain housing options, often based on their racial background or the demographics of the neighborhood.
And the current environment has exacerbated the problem for many.
“COVID has accelerated the problem of steering and discrimination,” says Antoine M. Thompson, national executive director at National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB). He sees the pandemic, low housing inventory, unstable incomes, and a racially charged climate as “…the perfect storm for people that want to discriminate against folks, whether it’s in renting, or ownership.”
If you believe you’ve been affected by steering or other discriminatory practices, here’s what you need to know about your rights and what you can do about it.
What Is Steering in Real Estate?
Steering is a form of discrimination whereby a real estate professional influences someone’s housing decision based on their race, religion, or another protected characteristic covered by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
The federally protected classes are:
- National origin
- Sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity)
- Familial status
Steering comes in many forms and while it’s most commonly associated with homebuyers, it isn’t limited to them — the impact goes far beyond that. This type of discrimination also affects those looking to rent or find public housing. The Department of Justice recently sued an Alabama public housing authority for steering public housing applicants based on race.
Steering can also happen within a neighborhood, apartment complex, or even in the same building. “It’s unlawful to restrict families with children to certain floors … or to steer people with a certain background, a certain family composition, to specific apartments and restrict them from others,” says Bryan Greene, vice president of policy advocacy at the National Association of Realtors. “The Fair Housing Act deals with all of those practices.”
What Are the Consequences of Steering?
The impact of steering is clearly seen in the perpetuation of racially segregated neighborhoods and housing. “A lot of things have contributed to existing segregation, not steering alone, but steering maintains existing demarcation lines that were often formed by racially restrictive covenants, or even violence,” Greene says.
One area where the consequences of segregation and housing discrimination can be seen is in homeownership rates. “[Steering] limits choice. Someone is choosing for you as opposed to you choosing for yourself. The other thing is that it fosters a distrust in the real estate industry,” Thompson says.
Currently, the gap in homeownership levels between Black and white Americans is at nearly the same level it was in 1960, before the Fair Housing Act was passed, according to the NAREB’s latest State of Housing in Black America report.
And when potential buyers are discouraged from shopping for a home in certain neighborhoods, that weakens housing demand and negatively impacts home prices. “[Steering] depreciates values in certain areas,” Thompson says. The average Black homeowner has a property worth 45% less than the typical white homeowner and has been more likely to experience a decrease in home value. This has a big impact on a family’s wealth. The median household for white Americans has a net worth eight times higher than the median Black American household and five times higher than the median Hispanic American household.
How to Tell If You’re Being Steered
Sometimes it’s obvious that you’re being steered. “If you’ve asked to see homes and you’ve not restricted the neighborhoods and you find that an agent is showing you homes in just one area or subset of those communities you’ve expressed interest in, you might suspect steering,” Greene says. It’s a big red flag if you’re only being shown housing options in areas where the demographics match your racial or religious background.
A real estate professional may also steer your housing decisions in other ways as well. The information they provide, or withhold, can be used to influence your decision without ever mentioning race or religion. A 2019 Newsday investigation revealed that agents on Long Island, New York, were speaking negatively about certain schools to white homebuyers, steering them away from more diverse areas. But that same investigation showed “… [that those agents] didn’t have that same conversation with Hispanic or Black consumers. So, if the concern, objectively was the quality of the schools, they only saw fit to mention that to White consumers,” Greene says. “So it’s a tell as to what the real issue is.”
You can be a victim of steering even if race is never explicitly mentioned. Your decision on where to live can be unfairly influenced by the way a community is described. “Steering may not always be as overt as it was years ago, but it still exists, it just takes on different forms,” Thompson says. “There are keywords that people can use when they’re trying to steer or guide people into an area, or they’re trying to push people away from that area.” An agent may refer to one neighborhood as “up and coming,” while another neighborhood is “not a place you’d want to raise a family.”
If you feel that a real estate professional is attempting to influence your housing decision based on your race, or other protected characteristic, the law is on your side. You’ll want to find another agent to work with, but you should also file a complaint and provide evidence.
What to Do If You’re a Victim of Steering
If you believe you’re a victim of steering, you should file a complaint. “That’s the number one thing they should do,” Thompson says.
Some of the organizations that can assist you in filing a complaint are:
- State or local human rights office
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
- National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB)
- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
- National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA)
It’s also important to understand your state and local housing discrimination laws. These laws may cover other characteristics, such as age, source of income, and pregnancy.
You should gather as much evidence of steering as you can. “Ideally, you do as much as you can, at the time of the event, to document and expose what you believe is happening,” Greene says. One way to document steering and provide clear evidence is through testing.
Testing is when test pairs of prospective homeowners or renters are sent out to see if they are treated differently by agents. This is something some people have done on their own, but often is completed with the help of a local housing group or government agency.
If a real estate professional is found to be practicing steering or other discriminatory practices, the consequences vary. Depending on the severity of the case, it could involve fines, loss of license, and damages could be awarded to the victim. But many believe not enough is being done to enforce the existing fair housing laws.
“We’ve got to bring greater penalties against real estate professionals that engage in discrimination,” Thompson says. “Too often the people who are most affected by steering, are African Americans and people of color … [they] are discouraged because they think nothing’s going to be done about it.”