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Happy talk is A-OK. (Lydia DePillis)

A couple weeks ago, we discussed how real estate agents are restricted in what they can tell clients about the character of a neighborhood by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was enacted to combat discrimination in all parts of the housing industry. Nearly all the realtors I spoke with about a story on D.C. public schools said that they didn’t tell clients about schools at all, lest they run afoul of the law; Jennifer Angotti felt confined in her ability to even dispel negative stereotypes that househunters might form on their own based on appearances, even if she knew the neighborhood well.

Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, says that’s mostly paranoia.

“I find it remarkable that a real estate agent wouldn’t be able to carry on a great conversation,” she tells Housing Complex. “Nobody in the fair housing movement is going to sue her because she affirmatively endorses a neighborhood.”

The National Fair Housing Alliance, and other organizations, send both white and non-white “testers” to impersonate clients, reporting back on whether they’re steered in certain directions based on their race. When they find violations—aided by an increasing number of agents and appraisers who will report bad behavior when they see it—NFHA will sue the offending real estate professional, and often win. Because Fair Housing Act violations can get a company in serious legal trouble, realtors sometimes get the message that they should avoid talking about neighborhoods altogether.

“Too often, real estate companies have their defense attorneys teaching classes,” Smith says. “And it sounds like the Fair Housing Act is set up to catch them.”

The bottom line, says Smith, is that you have to affirmatively market a neighborhood’s character—you can say it’s wonderfully diverse, with lots of cultural experiences, and many different educational offerings etc etc. You just can’t say anything negative about the ethnic mix or local schools. Which wouldn’t be much in a real estate agent’s interest anyway.