• Liz

We can make a difference in housing discrimination

Updated: Jan 25


Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. from his monument in Washington, DC.

In 2020, The Boston Globe reported on egregious discrimination against Black people posing as prospective tenants in Greater Boston. To quote the article, Black customers


“were shown fewer apartments than Whites and offered fewer incentives to rent, and [...] real estate agents cut off contact when the renters gave Black-sounding names like Lakisha, Tyrone, or Kareem.


The White ‘testers’ in the study posing as would-be renters, on the other hand, easily secured tours of properties, were wooed with discounts, and got preferred treatment — such as the opportunity to view additional units — when looking at apartments.”


The full article, which includes a link to the study, can be found here.


To anyone living in the Boston area, or in the United States for that matter, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. What caught my attention about the article was the Comments section, in which real estate agents were roundly excoriated as “one step below used car salesmen,” “mercenaries [who] would rent to the Taliban if there was a buck in it,” and making “personal injury lawyers look like Mother Teresa.” None of that came as a big surprise either. What really disappointed me was the following:


“I am a former rental agent and [...] it is the landlords who are dictating the policies. If you ANGER the landlord, then you and/or your office loses the listing. LISTINGS ARE GOLD.”


We can do better than to break the law in order to make money. There is only one way forward in combating systemic racism, and the first step is to tell the truth. So let’s start telling the truth:


Many people have compromised their values at one time or another in their careers, in order to make money. Some have even broken the law, knowingly or not. Any agent who has worked in rentals has been confronted with a landlord who asks, directly or subtly, for the “right” kind of tenant. The question we need to confront is, how do we, self-employed small business owners who work on commission, balance our personal financial needs with our moral and legal imperatives to do the right thing? Are there ways our support structures, such as real estate companies, or State laws governing real estate, can make that choice less burdensome? After all, it can be hard to stand up alone.


What can we do right now to dismantle racism in housing?


One idea I’ve heard is to keep names off of rental application forms. In the study described in the Globe article, tenants presented with identical jobs, credit, and references, and Black applicants were treated worse based solely on having “Black sounding” names. Would eliminating names from the form make discrimination more difficult...and our jobs as agents easier? Can Compass implement this kind of a change to our forms, nationwide? Consider it...20,000 agents doing the right thing without having to even think about it. And if we do it, will others follow suit? Could this become the law?


We know there are no guarantees when it comes to tackling racism in housing, but it’s past time for us to all start taking action; and thinking outside the box is one way to achieve our goals for an equitable future for all.


I believe we are at an amazing crossroads moment in our history as a country. I want to be involved in making real, systemic change. That starts with telling the truth, making personal sacrifices, dreaming big about what we can change and seizing this opportunity.


Who is with us?


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