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The Daily Journal: Failing at fair housing

This was originally published in The Daily Journal.

By Justin Alley

In recent months, newspaper and television reports have repeatedly carried messages of guilty admission from the California Association of Realtors. In an effort to come clean about a dark and nefarious history, CAR has been apologizing for the Realtors’ role in promoting policies of discrimination and racial exclusion.

The full extent to which Realtors were the primary bad actors in this history is little known. To elevate awareness of this, Gene Slater, an urban planner who has served as senior advisor for federal, state and local agencies for more than 40 years, released a book in 2021 entitled “Freedom to Discriminate.” This impressive work of research meticulously documents the history of the real estate industry’s involvement in racial exclusion, laying bare the fact that Realtors were not only promoters of exclusionary policies but, in many instances, were the very architects of them.

The story begins in the early 1900s with Realtors propagating the myth — later debunked by their own industry researchers — that allowing minorities into a neighborhood would adversely affect property values. With this highly charged rationale at their backs, they went on to create the odious racial covenants that prevented minorities from purchasing homes in new and, in some cases, already existing developments. On top of this, they shaped the redlining maps that denied government-backed loans to individuals and builders except in areas free of the “corrupting” influence of integration. And to seal this unholy deal, they drove a successful effort to negate California’s fair housing law (passed five years before the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968) and enshrined in the state Constitution the right of property owners to discriminate.

The California Association of Realtors now openly condemns these woeful actions of the past. But, in so doing, it still conspicuously fails to bring the Realtor community into alignment with the current requirements of fair housing law. This disconnect is especially apparent on the San Francisco Peninsula.

When the federal Fair Housing Act was passed, in 1968, it prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of real property. It also contained another lesser known requirement to “affirmatively further fair housing.” This is an obligation on the part of jurisdictions to take meaningful actions that, in addition to combating discrimination, further the goal of overcoming patterns of segregation and fostering inclusive communities.

The obligation to “affirmatively further fair housing” was largely overlooked for decades. Then, in 2015, California moved to make the obligation a reality. The Legislature adopted Assembly Bill 686, affirming the obligation of public agencies statewide to uphold AFFH. The Department of Housing and Community Development was named as the agency responsible for oversight and enforcement of AFFH.

In April 2021, HCD issued guidelines for the implementation of AB 686. This 94-page document opens with a narrative about the history of exclusion, then goes on to describe the AFFH requirements designed as a corrective to this history. Included in the memo are lists of policies that help to create inclusive communities and others that serve as barriers.

Policies to prevent displacement play a prominent role in AFFH. The HCD memo asserts, in no uncertain terms, that anti-displacement measures are integral to the process of developing inclusive communities. It lays out a wide range of anti-displacement policies that further AFFH, mentioning, among others, rent control, just cause for eviction, relocation payments, and tenant right to counsel.

While CAR maintains that the Realtor community now has a deep commitment to inclusion, an organized contingent of Realtors on the Peninsula have consistently pushed back against proposals to prevent displacement or provide renters other forms of meaningful regulatory relief. In fact, when One San Mateo proposed that the city of San Mateo adopt a “red tag” ordinance in 2018, Realtors showed up in force to oppose even this limited proposal. The measure was intended to penalize egregious offenses by the “worst of the worst” landlords — those who jeopardized the health and safety of their tenants — and to provide relocation assistance for affected tenants who were forced to move. While the council did finally pass this measure into law, the Realtor community used its organized muscle to sustain a prolonged battle against it.

The organized contingent of Realtors on the Peninsula continue to stand in the way of fair housing. They obstruct the effort to develop inclusive communities and, by their deeds as opposed to their words, they exhibit an astonishing indifference to renters’ needs. If Realtors truly care to shed their bad actor status, they need to come to terms with the full meaning of “fair housing” and adjust their behaviors accordingly. Otherwise, their future will only be a continuation of their past.

Justin Alley is a lifelong resident of San Mateo and the secretary of Communications of One San Mateo, a community organization dedicated to working for housing justice and a more fair and inclusive community.

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