Shopping for a new home online has become immensely popular in the last decade as web-based companies have scrambled to provide a plethora of information about homes for sale in almost every neighborhood in the United States. And while buyers should be cautious about a sites’ accuracy of information disclosure about properties (professionals always recommend representation, either by a licensed real estate agent or lawyer) new issues with web-based home buying and information services are popping up—like whether some advertising practices can be racist, according to this article in the Washington Post. Texas real estate lawyers knowledgeable of the way websites let you see detailed information on racial makeup of neighborhoods are divided about the issue, and whether it violates any federal laws.
Companies like Motovo have come under fire for doing just that, with some Texas real estate lawyers and civil rights advocates citing the Fair Housing Act and denouncing the practice of connecting racial data with home sale transactions, no matter who does it. But Motovo and other companies engaging in providing the data vehemently disagree. Providing “neighborhood-level racial, ethnic, linguistic, and similar demographic data comes from government sources such as the Census Bureau,” public and freely accessible.
The controversy has risen out of a recent investigation by the National Fair Housing Alliance, which represents more than 200 state and local civil rights organizations, and has been discovering websites that have “real estate tie-ins, whether a s brokerages or as referral generating services for realty agents.” Which also isn’t okay, according to the civil rights groups.
Some real estate lawyers like Douglas J. Shumway acknowledge that the availability of racial statistics in connection with property listings may have the potential to steer prospective home buyers toward certain neighborhoods, and away from others. Civil rights advocates say that this is what “undermines the promotion of racial integration, one of the purposes of the Fair Housing Act.” Real estate agents may also be in trouble if they’re getting referrals from such sites, as the National Association of Realtors expressly “prohibits the volunteering of information regarding the racial, religious or ethnic composition of any neighborhood.”
Motovo was forced to remove its pie-chart breakdowns of neighborhood racial characteristics in 2009 as a result of a lawsuit threat. But it continues to display the information at a community level. Texas real estate lawyers are licensed in a state that has a long history of resistance to government-fueled integration measures, and attorneys like Mike Hancock practicing in the ethnically diverse San Antonio area wonder what impact the controversy will have on local advertising practices.
The web-based, online available data of racial and demographic make-up of communities and neighborhoods has sparked its own theoretical questions, as well as legal ones. Because “in a hyper-wired era where consumers can access just about any data they want online,” is withholding the data compromising business’ competitive edge? Is supplying it “racist,” or is the assumption that prospective home buyers should be “color blind” when buying property “racist” instead?