April is National Fair Housing Month. While the real estate industry, like so many other businesses across the country, suffered the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, we cannot turn our backs on history and the important place to which it has led us.

Marla Lewis is 2021-22 President of the Houston Black Real Estate Association (HBREA)

Fifty-four years ago this month, April 11, 1968—just seven days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 into law. The Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, family status or disability, is part of that law.

I wish I could tell you that we no longer need laws to protect homebuyers and renters from discrimination. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

How widespread is housing discrimination in the 21st century? Fair housing organizations receive close to 30,000 complaints each year, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), a coalition of privately run fair housing groups. Yet testing suggests there are many more instances of discrimination—the NFHA estimates about 3.7 million annually.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has conducted thousands of tests in recent years. HUD uses housing organizations that send testers out to view for-sale and rental properties as a means of determining whether landlords, lenders, agents, and others in the real estate community treat protected classes unfavorably and differently.

Housing discrimination takes many forms, but here are a few real-world scenarios:

  • An owner or landlord falsely tells you that his property or unit is unavailable because of your religion;
  • An agent only shows you homes in one neighborhood because that area has a high concentration of residents of your race;
  • A landlord asks you for a higher deposit on a rental unit than other tenants because you have kids;
  • A landlord refuses to accommodate your need as a disabled tenant, such as allowing a service animal or installing grab-bars in bathrooms.

When people think about fair housing violations, they usually conjure up images of a slammed door or a restrictive advertisement. But violations of the Fair Housing Act are not only about a living situation or steering allegations. There are problems in the lending industry, as well. Because the lending process is so complex, it’s difficult to identify discrimination with any consistency.

You may know that the 1.5 million members of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP), Asian American Real Estate Association (AAREA) and other real estate associations pledge to adhere to a strict Code of Ethics that holds them to higher professional standards than what state and federal law require. However, as national awareness of racial inequalities grew following the George Floyd murder, the Code of Ethics was amended to ban harassing speech, hate speech, epithets or slurs based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity by its members. Under the new policy, real estate agents who insult, threaten or harass people based on race, sex, or other legally protected characteristics can be investigated, fined or expelled.

NAREB was formed in 1947, and our local chapter, the Houston Black Real Estate Association (HBREA) formed shortly after, in 1949, dedicated to “Democracy in Housing,” and helped lead the fight for the “Fair Housing Laws of 1968” and continuing improvements.

Violations of fair housing laws are not always obvious or easy to detect. After all, unless victims are somehow able to compare their experience to someone else’s, they likely have no reason to suspect any prejudice ever occurred. Fair housing laws do have teeth, however. So, if you believe you’ve been the victim of housing discrimination, you can submit a formal complaint with HUD ( and any local private housing enforcement agency.

Right now, we are all doing our part to put the pandemic behind us. But it is critical in the meantime that we each also do our part to make sure that home buyers and renters everywhere are treated fairly, equally and with dignity. Ask questions if something didn’t “feel right” about the service and direction your transaction is going.

HBREA is here to find answers to community concerns, questions and situations affecting real estate related activities.