NAR On Historic Apology: It Wasn’t Just ‘Bad Agents’ Who Discriminated
Three weeks ago, the 1.4 million-member National Association of Realtors formally apologized for its past policies that contributed to segregation and racial inequality nationwide in the 20th century, sparking backlash among some members.
The association has previously acknowledged that it actively fought passage of the Fair Housing Act and that it did not strike discrimination from its code of ethics until six years after its passage. NAR has also admitted that “many Realtors were complicit in odious practices like redlining and enforcing racial covenants” well into the 1960s. Moreover, the association long excluded members based on race or sex.
According to NAR, in 1924, the Realtor Code of Ethics was revised to include Article 34, which stated: “A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”
In 1950, the article (changed to Article 33) was revised to remove the “race or nationality” language, but the rest of the clause remained in effect: “A Realtor should not be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or use which will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”
In 1974, the language was completely removed from the Code of Ethics. It was replaced with what’s now known as Article 10, which prohibits denying equal professional services to anyone based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Article 10 was revised last month to prohibit Realtors from using harassing speech, hate speech, epithets, or slurs based on those protected classes.
On Nov. 19, NAR’s 2021 President Charlie Oppler apologized on behalf of the industry on his first day in office, during a virtual fair housing summit hosted by The Hill and co-sponsored by NAR that took place the day after NAR’s annual conference, the Realtors Conference and Expo, ended. At the time of the apology, Oppler was in conversation with NAR’s director of fair housing policy, Bryan Greene.
NAR declined Inman’s request for a live interview with Oppler, but offered Greene instead. This month, Greene was promoted to vice president of advocacy policy and is no longer NAR’s director of fair housing, though he will keep those responsibilities under his new role. Before joining NAR in November 2019, Greene spent 29 years at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), overseeing enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.
In a phone interview with Inman, Greene provided some context around NAR’s decision to issue the apology, some of the policies that prompted the apology, and thoughts on the negative reactions from some NAR members.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to talk about the apology that Charlie Oppler gave the day after the conference. Could you walk me through how it happened? Who decided it should be done? Why now?
It’s important to realize that this has been an evolution. NAR has been confronting its history of housing discrimination and its contribution to segregation for decades. It’s really focused more attention on those issues in the last several years.
For the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, we addressed a lot of this history. That was a watershed moment for us to begin to publicly confront this history and to really educate our membership on where NAR has been and how we’ve turned the corner and how we’re beginning to address those issues and make sure the future is brighter.
That same year, 2018, the Chicago Association of Realtors publicly apologized for its role in segregation and housing discrimination in Chicago. At the time I worked at HUD. I was honored to be invited to be a keynote speaker at that event. Even at that time I recognized the Realtors writ large were confronting this history. I saw this progress and it honestly was a great part of why I wanted to join the Realtors, that I saw Realtors were taking on these issues.
Last year, the Realtors created the Fair Housing Policy Committee. They also created the fair housing director position, its first. I came on board in that role. It was after I came on board that New York’s Newsday published its story about housing discrimination on Long Island. That accelerated much of my work. It helped me crystallize those things that I believed we needed to do to deal with the ongoing discrimination in the real estate sales market.
But even when I came on board I had many ideas of a broad range of things I wanted to do, not only to address ongoing discrimination, but also the legacy of discrimination and segregation in the housing market. Our non-discrimination commitment means do no harm, but we have a broader commitment to redress the harm that’s been done over many decades. So, I see myself as part of this continuum of work that NAR has been doing for a while.
With everything that we’ve been doing, it was very logical to explicitly acknowledge formally that we’re sorry for our role in this history. But we were also in a position this year to publicly acknowledge that we’ve been actively engaged in being part of a solution.
I’ll add that in the month leading up to President Oppler’s installment, he really reiterated his commitment to these principles as well and he’s expressed that he wants to be a leader in the fight against bias in the industry. He’s made fair housing a central priority of his year at NAR, so that precedes his announcement.
So in terms of why now, it sounds like part of it was you wanted to apologize but also have something to show for it, that you’re actually doing something about it?
I think that’s right. It’s kind of like, if you’re going to say sorry, you’ve got to really mean it. We certainly have been doing the work to show that we really mean it. In this case, it’s almost like the reverse — we were doing all this work precisely because we feel we owe a debt and that the future prosperity of our industry and the economy depend on us doing this work.
It became a logical extension to formally acknowledge that we do this work because it’s not only right, but because what we did in the past was wrong.
Charlie Oppler did it on his very first day in office. Was that his decision to do it on his very first day? Is there a reason that he did it as a volunteer leader versus the CEO who’s been there for decades?
I don’t know. I think it means a lot for the president of the Realtors to make that statement on behalf of the 1.4. million members. I think that it is significant and appropriate. It was a forum on that issue [fair housing]. It just all made sense for him, in this context, to make this apology. It was a great opportunity for us to talk about our fair housing work.
Could you give me a rundown of what he was apologizing for? I read the comments in the RISMedia post about it afterwards and it seemed like a lot of people were asking, “Why is he apologizing?” It seemed like a lot of people just didn’t know about any of this history.
To stand on our successes, we need to also own the past. I think it’s true in many organizations, people will say, “We’re the first to do this.” But when there’s sordid history in the background, then it’s presented as if all those actions were taken by rogue individuals rather than official acts of the organization.
Responsible leadership means admitting when you are wrong, but also committing to do better. They go together. I think that’s what actually makes your success and the positive actions you take endure.
I would like to hear from you the specific things that he was apologizing for, what the specific discriminatory policies were.
Very early in the history of the National Association of Realtors and the precursor organization of the [NAR], Realtors openly supported the development of covenants. When I spoke in Chicago, two years ago when I was a HUD official, I spoke about how Realtors who were based in Chicago at the very beginning went throughout the South Side of Chicago contacting homeowners, encouraging them to put covenants in their properties.
So, that was an official action where Realtors, as soon as a Supreme Court decision suggested that this might be a legal way to restrict who lives in the community, the precursor association of the Realtors, the National Association of Real Estate Boards, started encouraging the development of covenants. So, very official, very widespread, not random people.
This is how our industry developed. This was systemic. It was part of the industry. Soon thereafter, the federal government with industry support began to redline and again, systemically segregated America’s communities. So, it may be hard for some people today to look back and fully appreciate that discrimination in the past was not just random acts of discrimination or bad agents here, bad agents there. It was how we organized communities with government support. The industry, government, individuals, all agreeing this is how we should live.
When the Fair Housing Act was proposed, Realtors were on the wrong side. The Fair Housing Act was a great step forward because it made these practices unlawful. But of course, the challenge 52 years after the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act has been old habits, old practices, die hard.
Even as we address individual behaviors, the systems which lead to segregated communities are still hard to overcome and to fully counteract. This is why I keep saying that in addition to the work that we’re doing to make sure we do no further harm, we also need to examine those systemic factors that still perpetuate inequality and perpetuate segregation. We have to do both.
The apology is for all of it, a recognition that we created a segregated society, along with government, and that we’re now doing all those things we can to make sure that the housing industry works for the benefit of everybody.
In regards to the apology, there seemed to be a lot of people saying they thought NAR was virtue signaling or being politically correct or that they didn’t think systemic racism exists. A lot of them especially seem to be offended that Charlie Oppler was “lumping all Realtors together” and that they themselves have nothing to apologize for. What do you think of those comments?
I think sometimes you can hear these comments because people don’t understand the history. I think this apology is based on many of our members getting this history, knowing about it, and accepting it and accepting that we’ve turned the page. I think overwhelmingly, that’s who we are now as Realtors.
A broad swath of our membership has educated themselves on this history and understand it and understand the systemic nature of the history. We can make this acknowledgement today because people have processed the harm and can meaningfully now apologize for that history and credibly pledge to do better.
On the other hand, there were others that commented that the apology is not enough, and particularly took issue with the part that said, “We can’t go back to fix the mistakes of the past.” They said they’d like to see NAR put in programs designed to increase black membership, grants for prospective black homeowners in areas where NAR helped redline, affordable housing initiatives geared toward black homeownership. They criticized the new ethics policies as being window dressing and said the broker self-test program being voluntary would be possibly ineffective. What do you say to those criticisms?
Well, there you go. The apology is not enough and President Oppler made that clear. I also said that we are on the path to begin to address the historic issues. We can’t do it all at once. On many of these issues we have to find the path forward. But we’re rolling up our sleeves and addressing them.
I think anyone who’s says the Realtors have not done enough should appreciate that we’ve spent the last several years starting to do more. So we’ll keep doing that. We’ve done a lot in this year alone and many of the things that we propose doing will have widespread systemic effects. It’ll take some time, but we have committed to a lot of work in this area.
In that vein, what are the things that you’re planning to do in the near future about it?
[NAR’s fair housing plan, ACT], succinctly categorizes those efforts in terms of increased accountability, greater cultural change and better training. That plan was not intended to be exhaustive, but to really conceptually create a framework of those kinds of things that we need to keep doing.
So in terms of accountability, it’s true that we propose self-testing, which is something that the industry does not widely do. But we also said that we need to improve state licensing laws to make sure that when people do engage in discrimination that there’s some real consequence.
Beyond that, not spelled out necessarily in ACT, but spelled out in letters to Congress, we’ve supported more funding for the federal government to do its work enforcing housing discrimination laws. We’ve supported increased funding for testing. Testing is really the gold standard for how you uncover discrimination in the housing market today. We’re not just doing self-testing. We’re telling the government, ‘you ought to do more testing to address discrimination.’
The culture change is probably the broadest area where we’re outlining things we need to do. Even in the areas of schools and fair housing that’s a long term effort where we’re acknowledging that school segregation reinforces housing segregation and vice versa. In that respect. agents may not be violating the law when they direct people to third-party sources about schools, but we think as a matter of policy there’s more that we can do to ensure that consumers get multi-dimensional portraits of schools so they aren’t making choices that just perpetuate segregation.
And we’ve committed to better training that we think will be more effective than the kinds of training that have come before. That’s just really the tip of the iceberg. What we’ve begun with is actually quite a lot. Many of these things are going to continue for some time.
Beyond that we’re going to be working with federal government. We’ll be looking at other things we can address. I know I’m personally very concerned about some of the issues that Thomas Mitchell at Texas A&M has raised concerning the loss of property that many African Americans have suffered over time because of how heirs property works. So we want to look at that, see how we can engage on that.
We see many Realtors around the country looking at their own communities and how past practices have shaped those communities. Like how urban renewal has shaped communities and what can they do to counteract the effects there. So there’s a lot more to dig into, especially the issues that still confront us. So we have a lot on our plate. We’re off and running.