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How Realtors® are making it more difficult for students to learn about housing discrimination
For decades, people of color were systematically excluded from buying homes, contributing to an ongoing racial wealth gap. One group that historically played a large role in racist housing practices is the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the real estate industry’s trade group. Today, it is one of the largest and most powerful trade associations in the United States.
For years, the NAR embraced racial exclusion and actively opposed the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which would go on to make housing discrimination unlawful. The NAR acknowledges its malign conduct on its website:
Many factors played into NAR’s resistance: historic prejudice, the belief that property values were more stable if neighborhoods were occupied by the same racial/social classes and the argument that people should be free to refuse to sell or rent a home to anyone for any reason — even if the decision was based on race.
In November 2020, the NAR issued a formal apology “for the association's past policies that contributed to segregation and racial inequality in America.”
“What Realtors® did was an outrage to our morals and our ideals. It was a betrayal of our commitment to fairness and equality,” NAR President Charlie Oppler said. “We can't go back to fix the mistakes of the past, but we can look at this problem squarely in the eye. And, on behalf of our industry, we can say that what Realtors® did was shameful, and we are sorry.”
Specifically, Oppler said that it is imperative to “remember this history if we hope to repair America’s racially divided communities.”
But a Popular Information investigation reveals that the NAR and its state affiliates are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers pushing legislation that would make it difficult for students to learn about the systemic racism that is embedded in the United States housing market.
The legislation, some of which has already become law, is frequently described as an effort to oppose Critical Race Theory (CRT) — but often has a far broader impact. The Texas Association of Realtors® donated at least $141,000 to 21 sponsors of an anti-CRT bill that restricts the ability of K-12 teachers to discuss issues like housing discrimination.
The legislation, which went into effect this month, prohibits teachers from “discuss[ing] a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” It does not define what qualifies as a “widely debated and currently controversial issue.” But under this ban, a teacher that discusses the legacy of racist housing policies and its impact on current black homeownership rates could face severe consequences.
Popular Information asked the NAR if it is important for students to learn the history of redlining. “Absolutely,” an NAR spokesperson said. “Beyond that, we all need to use that understanding to promote diverse, inclusive communities going forward.”
Yet, the group did not state whether they will continue to support politicians pushing legislation that will make it more difficult to teach about housing discrimination. “Fair housing is a top priority for the REALTORS®, and we support many politicians who champion increased housing opportunities,” an NAR spokesperson said. “We have also withdrawn our support for politicians who opposed fair housing or other policies antithetical to our values. We will examine those situations on a case-by-case basis.”
The legacy of racist housing practices
Housing discrimination is not simply an unpleasant chapter in America's past. It is part of its present. During the pandemic, white homeownership hit a record high due to the availability of historically low mortgage rates. Meanwhile, black homeownership declined.
This is not a coincidence. Since the early 2000s, black homeownership rates have been as low as they were in the 1960s, when private race-based discrimination was still legal. Gains achieved by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 have been virtually “erased” in the 21st century.
Much of these low homeownership rates can be attributed to years of housing discrimination, including redlining. Redlining was a systemic practice that was “federally created––but locally implemented” whereby banks and mortgage lenders refused to lend money to borrowers because of their race or where they lived. This practice segregated housing and effectively “prevented generations of [black] families from gaining equity in homeownership or making improvements to homes already owned.”
Fifty years later, the impact of these practices linger. Scholars believe that redlining is “one factor behind the gulf in wealth between blacks and whites in the U.S. today.”
According to affordable housing expert Gene Slater, Realtors® played a significant role in perpetuating residential discrimination. In his book, Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America, Slater traces the Realtors’ concerted efforts from 1903 to 1968 to racially divide neighborhoods and justify residential segregation.
“The Realtors’ commitment to racial homogeneity drove their design of federal programs and—by financing only developments far from any minorities—the layout of every metropolitan area,” Slater writes. “The neighborhoods where most Americans live today, and who their neighbors are, are the result of that commitment.”
It wasn’t until 1975 that Realtors® committed to promote fair housing.
Slater told Popular Information that Realtors® “of all people, given their history, should be the last” ones to fund lawmakers attempting to suppress discussions of housing discrimination in schools. If anything, Slater argued, Realtors should be the “first ones to promote the study of the past.”
Today, the NAR publicly acknowledges its past misdeeds and proudly proclaims that it’s a “national industry leader on fair housing.” With the gap between black homeownership and white homeownership projected to grow, the NAR’s Vice President of Policy Advocacy Bryan Greene believes that “we must confront the barriers that perpetuate this gap,” including uneven lending practices, exclusionary zoning, and the “financial disadvantages borne by a history of exclusion.”
Indeed, the NAR told Popular Information that it “support[s] continued education, discussion, and action on fair housing so we can achieve greater housing opportunities for all.” But if that is the case, then why are Realtors® contributing to efforts that would make these discussions illegal in schools?
REALTORS® PACs bankrolls politicians trying to make it impossible for teachers to discuss systemic housing discrimination
A Popular Information analysis found that the NAR has donated $131,000 since 2020 to 23 federal lawmakers that have sponsored anti-CRT legislation. The NAR PAC and state affiliates of the NAR have also donated at least $568,293 to state lawmakers proposing CRT bans in 20 different states.
The Tennessee Association of Realtors® donated at least $73,500 to 57 sponsors of a state CRT ban that restricts the ability of K-12 teachers to discuss systemic racism with their students.
The law, which was passed in May 2021, prohibits teachers from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged,” among other things. Under this law, a teacher that discussed how redlining made it easier for white people to purchase real estate because of systemic racism could be disciplined for violating the law, and their school could lose funding.
Last month, Popular Information reported that the North Dakota Association of Realtors was one of the top donors to legislators in North Dakota that introduced a bill that banned teaching of CRT in K-12 schools, including any instruction “related” to the idea that “racism is systemically embedded in American society” or the American “legal system.”
“I strongly suspect that discussions of past discrimination on the part of the Realtors (or any other group) would be chilled under the new law[,] if not banned,” Elizabeth Skarin, Campaigns Director for the ACLU of North Dakota, said. The North Dakota Association of Realtors donated $2,500 to the co-sponsors of the legislation.
Anti-CRT bans are also being introduced at a federal level. In June, Republicans in Congress introduced legislation that would “prohibit Federal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project,” a project developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones that reframes the history of America by centering the “consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans.” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) introduced another bill in June that would “promote dignity and nondiscrimination” in Washington, D.C. public schools by banning CRT from being taught.
In July, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MI) introduced legislation that would ban CRT in schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity. These bans would make it more difficult to teach students across the country about historical and current housing discrimination. Popular Information found that the National Association of Realtors PAC donated $131,000 to the federal lawmakers behind these bans.