What’s Steering in Real Estate? A Buyer’s Guide to Neighborhood Segregation

You’re ready to buy a home, and the first thing you do is hire a trusted real estate agent. You share your budget, what you’re looking for, and the neighborhoods you’re considering.

In an ideal world, your agent listens carefully and then sends you every listing that could possibly fit your list of must-haves. Their recommendations are guided by your actual needs rather than their own preconceived notions about what you might need. They patiently answer your questions and guide you to community resources that can help you make the best decision for you and your family.

Unfortunately, this ideal experience isn’t how things pan out for a lot of homebuyers, especially minorities.

Real estate agents have a long history of steering buyers toward certain neighborhoods based on race, color, religion, and other discriminatory factors. In fact, steering is one of the big reasons for the widespread neighborhood segregation we see in the U.S., even today.

But what exactly is steering in real estate, and how does it play out across communities? We’ll dive into what you need to know about steering, the laws surrounding this controversial practice, and what you can do if you think you’re being steered by your agent.

Source: (Rob Marmion / Shutterstock)

What is steering in real estate?

Steering is when a real estate agent influences a homebuyer to purchase in certain communities based on their race, therefore limiting the buyer’s choices.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example of steering: a white buyer and a Black buyer approach the same real estate agent looking to buy homes. Both buyers have similar financial profiles and similar needs for their future homes. The agent sends the white buyer 40 listings in 5 different communities, all of which are predominantly white. The agent sends the Black buyer 22 listings in 3 communities, all of which are racially mixed or predominantly Black.

This is how steering often plays out. Agents direct clients to neighborhoods based on their race.

In practice, this means that white buyers are often given more housing options and advised against moving to diverse neighborhoods. Black buyers tend to be given fewer options, and they are steered toward predominantly Black or mixed-race neighborhoods.

Steering is illegal under the Fair Housing Act (more on that later). Real estate agents are required to offer equal professional service to all homebuyers, no matter their race, religion, color, disability, national origin, sex, or familial status.

What steering is

Steering is usually practiced by real estate agents in one of two major ways:

  1. Counseling clients to buy in certain neighborhoods or towns based on their race.
  2. Not showing clients all of their relevant home options based on their race.

Although steering can be done in many different — and often insidious — ways, most steering behavior typically falls under one of these two categories.

What steering can look like in practice

Let’s take a look at how steering can shake out in real life. Here are a few examples of ways agents can steer their clients.

  • Showing more listings to white homebuyers than minority homebuyers.
  • Assuming clients want to live in neighborhoods predominated by people of their own race, and only showing them homes in those neighborhoods.
  • Discouraging white clients from living in minority areas for “safety” reasons (or using other euphemistic language, like “you don’t want to live there; they have really bad schools.”)
  • Disclosing neighborhood safety concerns — such as a recent rash of break-ins — to white homebuyers, but not doing the same for minority homebuyers.
  • Disparaging minority communities to white clients.

Basically, if an agent isn’t giving equal professional service to their clients, and if they’re making assumptions about what buyers of different races want without explicit direction from those buyers, then they’re in danger of steering.

What steering isn’t

Real estate agents are required to offer equal professional service to homebuyers, and the more they do that, the more they steer clear of steering.

How do agents offer equal professional service? By giving buyers options and presenting them with objective information so they can make their own informed decisions.

Giving buyers options

“Okay,” you might be wondering — “buyers should be given options… but aren’t buyers also allowed to have preferences?”

Of course, they’ll have preferences, and it’s important for agents to give buyers all their options within their home criteria, and let the buyer steer the decision about which neighborhood and house is the best fit.

If a buyer wants to buy a home in a certain school district or near a particular place of worship, that’s usually not a form of steering, as long as the buyer is the one driving those decisions.

A good agent should cast a wide net for the buyer and let the buyer narrow down the options based on their preferences.

Offering buyers objective information

There’s nothing wrong with an agent informing their clients about the different neighborhoods in an area. That’s part of an agent’s job!

Strong agents are extremely knowledgeable about their cities, and they understand the ins and outs of each neighborhood like the backs of their hands. That’s why buyers hire them; for their market expertise.

That said, it’s not an agent’s job to impose their personal opinion onto a buyer’s journey. That’s where objective information comes in. Agents should offer up objective information and resources to buyers about local schools, crime and safety, and other important community data. That way, no biases come into play, and buyers can make their own informed decisions.

Where agents often get into trouble with steering is by warning some buyers (typically white buyers) to avoid certain neighborhoods because of so-called high crime and poor schools. Or perhaps an agent says something like, “you won’t like it there; it’s seedy at night.”

These kinds of comments can amount to steering and other discriminatory practices (more on those later).

Source: (fizkes / Shutterstock)

How prevalent is steering in real estate?

Unfortunately, steering is incredibly common in the world of real estate. The practice has been well documented for decades, with studies on steering and its effects on communities surfacing as early as 1976.

Since the late 1970s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has studied steering by sending test pairs of buyers out in cities across the U.S. to measure how they’re treated by agents.

The most recent HUD study, released in 2013, found that even when white and Black buyers had equal financial qualifications, “white home-seekers are more likely to be more favored than minorities. Most important, minority home-seekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than whites.”

A recent investigation by Newsday in Long Island revealed similar findings: “Altogether, agents provided white testers an average of 50% more listings than they gave to black counterparts – 39 compared with 26,” they shared.

Black participants in the Newsday investigation were shocked and disappointed to learn that they’d been treated discriminatorily by agents.

“I would have no idea that, without this testing, that there was even a difference between what was provided. My assumption would be that everybody would be provided with the same listings based on their economic and geographic requirements,” said Martine Hackett, a tenured professor of public health at Hofstra University, who was met with disparate treatment from agents three times during the investigation.

“To sort of have the options to be limited in that way sort of makes me think about what options are available that people might not know about. And who’s making those choices?” she wondered.

The subtlety and secretiveness of steering is one of the reasons it’s hard for buyers to call out the behavior. Most buyers would have no idea they’d been steered. How would you even know you’d been given fewer options than another buyer?

To compound matters, a lot of the time real estate agents don’t even realize they’re steering! This type of bias is often unconscious, and the agent believes they’re just trying to serve the needs of their buyers as best they can. Therein lies the pervasiveness and insidiousness of steering.

Steering contributes to de facto segregation

The practice of steering is so prevalent, it works as a tool of de facto segregation. What does that mean?

Well, many Americans like to think of segregation as ancient history — something that we learn about in history books, an old story told through black and white photos.

But the reality is, the United States is still very much segregated, and steering plays a big part in that segregation. In fact, studies show America is still nearly as segregated as it was 50 years ago, when the Fair Housing Act was signed.

A recent report from the National Fair Housing Alliance explains: “In today’s America, approximately half of all Black persons and 40% of all Latinos live in neighborhoods without a white presence. The average white person lives in a neighborhood that is nearly 80% white.”

This segregation ultimately has a huge impact on communities.

The consequences of steering on minority communities

Okay, so we know that steering happens, that it’s prevalent, and that it’s contributing to neighborhood segregation across the U.S. But how does steering actually affect marginalized homebuyers in the U.S.?

Unfortunately, steering has far-reaching negative effects for minority homebuyers, especially Black people.

Fewer housing options

One obvious effect of steering is that it reduces the housing options of minority buyers. Studies find that Black buyers are consistently shown fewer listings by real estate agents, limiting their housing selections.

“This practice has a particularly negative impact on Black households in multiple ways,” the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) shares in its 2019 State of Housing in Black America.

“Failing to show Black home seekers properties in non-Hispanic white neighborhoods and steering them exclusively to Black neighborhoods can greatly undermine the number and quality of housing options for Black households.”

Lower home appreciation and ownership rates

Another major consequence of steering on Black households? Homes in Black neighborhoods don’t appreciate in value as much as homes in white neighborhoods, so those homeowners can’t build as much wealth.

Recent research from the American Center for Progress found that “past and present racial biases and discriminatory practices in real estate markets — such as redlining, steering, variations in appraisal methods, and appraisers’ racialized perceptions of neighborhoods, among others — contribute to lower housing demand in African American neighborhoods.”

That lowered demand means lowered home prices.

The study continues, “even after taking housing characteristics into consideration, homes in neighborhoods where there is a large concentration of African Americans as well as neighborhoods that are racially transitioning typically are worth less and appreciate at a lower rate than those in predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Meanwhile, a Brookings Institution study found that Black people get around 18% less for their homes than white people, even equalizing for income.

Homeownership is often touted as a cornerstone of the American dream and the best way to build wealth in the U.S. Yet the opportunities don’t play out equally for Black and white homeowners.

“Low or falling home price appreciation could contribute to low homeownership rates among Black households,” NAREB explains. “Poor home-price appreciation can discourage homebuying, and falling prices can trigger foreclosures, even among borrowers who can afford to make required monthly mortgage payments.”

Segregation and school quality

Though we’ve technically had integrated schools since the 1954 Supreme Court landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, schools remain segregated across the nation, even today.

In fact, a recent report found that more than half of U.S. kids go to schools in racially concentrated districts (meaning 75% or more of the students are of the same race). That same report found that non-white school districts get $23 billion less in funding than white school districts, even as they serve the same number of students.

As NAREB notes, racial steering “can further limit Blacks access to higher-quality schools, broader recreational opportunities, safer streets, and higher home-price appreciation.”

Lack of upward mobility

Another big way steering affects minority communities is through a lack of upward mobility.

The National Bureau of Economic Research explains that even when controlling for buyers’ location preferences and income, “discriminatory steering alone can explain a disproportionate number of minority households found in high-poverty neighborhoods in the United States and could be an important contributor to the gap in intergenerational income mobility found between black-white households.”

“Intergenerational” is a key word here, because it means that Black families are held back for generations by steering. The practice can have both widespread and longstanding effects on minority homebuyers.

Pollution

Outside of making it harder for minorities to build wealth, steering can have major health effects for homeowners. That’s because minority homebuyers tend to be pushed into areas with higher levels of pollution.

The National Bureau of Economic Research study found that minority testers they sent out to buy homes were “steered towards neighborhoods with higher concentrations of Superfund sites and releases from the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).”

Another recent study from Ohio State University revealed that disease-causing air pollution is strong in certain pockets of the U.S., namely in areas populated by Black people and those with low income.

A redlining map used when steering in real estate.
Source: (City of Detroit / Flickr)

Other important definitions related to steering and housing discrimination

Steering isn’t the only discriminatory practice minorities and other marginalized homebuyers face, and it isn’t the only contributor to segregation. The issue is multilayered, and it’s certainly not only real estate agents at fault.

According to the National Fair Housing Alliance, “racial and ethnic disparities in access to credit, the compounding effects of the subprime lending and foreclosure crisis, and modern practices of discrimination, racial steering, and redlining have perpetuated racial segregation.”

There’s a complex system in place that causes minorities to be disadvantaged when it comes to housing. Here are a few of the important terms to know.

Redlining

Redlining is a practice where lenders refuse to issue mortgages to buyers in certain so-called “higher risk” neighborhoods, like those that are low income or predominantly minority.

Shockingly, redlining was done by the federal government. Back in the 1930s, after the New Deal was signed, the Federal Housing Authority — established in 1934 — actually color-coded maps, coloring “risky” neighborhoods in red (hence the term “redlining”). The red areas represented places where the federal government wouldn’t back home loans. You can still see those redlining maps today.

Although redlining is currently illegal thanks to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the effects of this practice are still felt.

According to recent research by Redfin, “the typical homeowner in a neighborhood that was redlined for mortgage lending by the federal government has gained 52% less — or $212,023 less — in personal wealth generated by property value increases than one in a greenlined neighborhood over the last 40 years.”

Blockbusting

Blockbusting is a historic housing practice where real estate agents, developers, and speculators would convince white homeowners to sell their homes by drumming up fears that Black buyers were moving into the neighborhood and tanking home values.

The white homeowners would panic and sell their homes at a loss. Then the real estate types would turn around and sell the homes to Black homebuyers for a massive, inflated profit. Very few homes were available to Black people at the time, so they had no choice but to pay these high prices.

The practice of blockbusting is obviously illegal today, and it is no longer practiced explicitly. However, this type of fearmongering is still practiced in more implicit ways, such as through modern-day steering. Blockbusting was engineered to provoke white flight.

White flight

White flight is exactly what it sounds like: white people migrating from an area as it becomes more diverse. And although this might seem like a thing of the past, recent research suggests that white people still flee areas as they become more diverse, even more so in middle-class, suburban neighborhoods.

Are there any laws that prohibit steering?

There is a major federal law that outlaws steering called the federal Fair Housing Act — also known as Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

The Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination on the base of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, familial status, or disability.

The law protects home-seekers from discrimination whether they’re buying or renting, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in any other housing-related activity.

But what conduct, exactly, is prohibited under the Fair Housing Act? Here are a few examples.

  • Steering
  • Refusing to rent, sell, or negotiate on housing
  • Any other way of making housing unavailable, such as discouraging the purchase or rental of a property
  • Setting different terms for the sale or rental of a property
  • Charging different sales or rental prices
  • Requiring different qualification criteria on applications
  • Failing or delaying maintenance or repairs
  • Blockbusting
  • Redlining

This list is far from exhaustive, (especially since there are a lot of nuances in housing discrimination), but it makes one thing loud and clear: all homebuyers and renters should be treated equally by real estate professionals. This is the essence of the Fair Housing Act.

And the provisions of the act truly protect everyone, not only those within protected classes. That means under the Fair Housing Act, you’re protected against housing discrimination regardless of your race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability.

State and local housing discrimination laws

State and local laws can go further than the Fair Housing Act, and they often do. One way laws extend Fair Housing protections is by including even more protected groups than are covered by the federal law.

For example, the New York State Division of Human Rights Law expands on the Fair Housing Act and includes housing protections for gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, and military status.

Make sure to look into your state’s and city’s housing discrimination laws. You might be surprised to find that it’s much more extensive than the federal law. And remember, local laws exist on top of the protections of the Fair Housing Act. No locality can skirt the Fair Housing Act, or create a law that invalidates its protections.

A person in court because of steering in real estate.
Source: (MR.Yanukit / Shutterstock)

How are steering laws enforced?

Steering is against the law, but that doesn’t mean anti-discrimination laws are actually enforced. In fact, it’s common for steering to fly under the radar, as most buyers don’t even realize it’s happening to them. Still, there are a few main ways the Fair Housing Act is enforced.

Government agencies that enforce steering laws

The Fair Housing Act is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), through their Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. HUD enforces the law in a few different ways.

First, HUD manages those previously mentioned studies where they send test pairs of buyers and renters out into cities across the U.S. to measure how they’re treated. This is one way they try to hold the real estate industry accountable. (Though one could argue that if the studies helped enforce anti-discrimination practices, we’d probably have better results after running decades of them.)

Another way HUD enforces the Fair Housing Act? They investigate anti-discrimination claims, which anyone can file online, by phone, email, or even by mail.

Many state and local governments also have their own enforcement arms. Sometimes it can be more effective to go local with a report, as state governments and municipalities tend to have more specialized knowledge of discrimination practices in specific areas.

Steering and the courts

Homebuyers can also sometimes get justice for discrimination through the courts. These cases are typically large-scale lawsuits brought by a state’s attorney general or a local advocacy organization on behalf of homebuyers.

For example, one early case was Realty Forum v. New York State Attorney General, which took place in 1988. In this case, the New York State Attorney General accused Yonkers real estate agency Realty Forum of “providing listings of apartments in particular neighborhoods based solely on a client’s race or color.” The Realty Forum was eventually found guilty.

So how did New York’s attorney general find out about the discriminatory practices? Through a fair housing group called Westchester Housing Opportunities, who received multiple complaints from local renters about the Realty Forum.

This is one reason it can be important to report housing discrimination locally as well as through HUD. If enough buyers come forward with claims of discrimination, all originating with the same real estate brokerage, the state can then make a case against that brokerage to the courts.

A notebook used to document steering in real estate.
Source: (oatzpenz studio / Shutterstock)

What to do if you think you’re being steered

If you think you’re being steered by your real estate agent, there are a few things you can do to advocate for yourself.

Document everything

If it comes down to it, and you end up reporting your agent, you’ll want a record of everything that’s happened.

Make sure to document everything you experience with your agent, such as how many listings they sent you, the advice they gave you about neighborhoods, any conversations you had, applications you’ve filled out, email communications, and so on. This could be used as evidence later if need be.

Talk to your agent

Along with documenting everything, the first thing to do is talk to your agent.

For example, let’s say you recently discovered a bunch of listings that fit your home search criteria that your agent never showed you, and you think steering could be involved. This is an opportunity to talk to your agent and find out what’s going on.

To start off, try to avoid accusing your agent of steering right out of the gate and consider this a preliminary fact-finding mission. Simply ask questions in a straightforward way: “I noticed a few listings you never sent me that fit my search. Could you explain why?”

If nothing else, this conversation could potentially be used as evidence of discrimination later, if the issue isn’t properly resolved.

Get a second opinion

The bottom line is, you should be able to trust your real estate agent. If you believe you’re being treated unfairly, it’s probably time to fire your agent and find a new one that will give you the equal professional service you deserve.

Now is the time to interview a few more agents and find one who will value your business and treat you fairly.

If you’ve signed a buyer’s agent agreement, make sure to read it carefully first. There are specific conditions under which you can fire an agent, though any hint of discrimination is likely covered under your contract terms.

Note that firing your agent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report them — but in the meantime, it’s also important to find someone you’ll be comfortable working with so you can continue your home search uninterrupted.

Report the conduct

If you believe you’ve experienced housing discrimination of any kind, you may want to consider reporting their conduct to a local enforcement agency, through HUD, or with a local fair housing organization.

Most housing discrimination goes unreported and flies under the radar. While it can be stressful and anxiety-inducing to report your real estate agent, these reports are how enforcement agencies can prove patterns of systemic discrimination. Without people coming forward, many discriminatory practices can persist undetected.

Lawyer up

If all else fails, speak with an attorney who may be able to advise you of your rights and what your best options might be. You always have the option of suing for damages through federal or state courts, but you will need an attorney to guide you through this process.

If you go this route, understand that you can only sue for equal to the amount of extra expenses you incurred because of the discrimination, plus any emotional distress or injury. It’s important to weigh whether this option is worth it to you, as cases like this can be long-winded, expensive, and exhausting for the plaintiffs. Still, it’s a good option to have under your belt if the system doesn’t step in.

Remember: You have the right to be treated fairly by your real estate agent, no matter your race, color, national origin, sex, familial status, disability, or religion.

Header Image Source: (June Dalton / Unsplash)

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