Questions Your Broker Can’t Answer

It’s illegal for Manhattan real estate brokers to tell people that a given building or neighborhood is “family friendly” or, indeed, to give any sort of demographic information that might help steer people to a place they might like, Vivian Toy explains.

WHAT kind of people live in this building?” That is often the first question brokers are asked by apartment hunters — be they couples with children, retirees seeking peace and quiet or 20-somethings prone to the occasional raucous party. But in recent months, thousands of brokers have learned that in answering that question, they might just be breaking the law. Many real estate ads, for instance, use “family friendly” to describe large apartments. But according to a strict interpretation of federal, state and local fair-housing laws, that is illegal.

“If a family with children wants to know if there are other children the same age in a building, we’re supposed to say, ‘You should stand outside the building between 2 and 5 p.m. and see who walks in,’ ” said Michele Kleier, the president of Gumley Haft Kleier. “But how do you say something like that with a straight face?”


Real estate lawyers say there are lots of other descriptions and terms that could trigger discrimination lawsuits, prompting many brokers to watch what they say in front of clients and to scour their ads for risky words. Unacceptable terms include “adult community,” “bachelor pad,” “near churches” and “no children.” Lawyers also warn against listing specific school districts and using catchphrases like “great for families,” “nanny’s room,” “quality neighborhood” and “senior housing.”


Mr. Garfinkel goes on to warn brokers that they should not identify the school districts where apartments are located. This, despite the fact that real estate ads often boast that an address is zoned for top-rated schools like P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side or P.S. 234 in TriBeCa. He said that while it is all right to name a school district when specifically asked, the fact should not be advertised because some school districts have distinctive racial compositions and advertising the district could be seen as a way of expressing preference for a specific race. Brokers are often stunned by this prohibition, he said, “but I’m a lawyer, and I’m going by the strict letter of the law.”


The brokers were in for some surprises. Mr. Garfinkel explained that to follow the city law regarding occupations, they should not ask people what they do for a living. “I think that blew everybody’s mind,” Mr. James said. “I don’t think we’ve recovered from that yet.”


The antidiscrimination sheet falls far short of the disclosure that would be necessary if the City Council passes the law on co-op rejections. Nearly two-thirds of the members of the City Council have signed on as co-sponsors, but the council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, has said she opposes the bill since existing housing discrimination laws already offer redress. The proposed law would require co-op boards to provide a written explanation for any board rejection and to reveal the source of any negative information it received about a prospective buyer. Boards could be fined if they did not provide this information within five days of their decision.


In addition to seminars for brokers, Corcoran’s efforts include a computer program that automatically screens property listings for unacceptable language. “Some words get completely blocked, and others flash a warning on your screen,” Ms. Liebman said. “It’s a huge list of words, but we have zero tolerance for violations.”

Simply bizarre. Indeed, why enforcing fair housing laws would be the responsibility of a real estate agent is beyond me. Their job is to provide information to their clients. Landlords and sellers are not allowed to discriminate against applicants in certain protected classes but prospective renters and buyers certainly have the right to chose to live among people they’re comfortable with. It’s perfectly reasonable for those with small children to want to live around families and for childless or elderly couples who want peace and quiet to avoid the same. Why shouldn’t their agents be able to give them the information necessary to make that decision?

Via Andrew Sullivan, who terms this “busy body hell.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mister Biggs says:

    I worked for a firm in CA that represented landlords about 5 years ago and they would host seminars for clients to train employees on all the things they couldn’t do when renting out units. It was a big deal because other law offices would send people out fishing for any violations of fair housing to sue the landlord (this was of course in addition to fishing for ADA violations).

  2. floyd says:

    Ain’t it just like the gov’ment to make it a crime to tell the truth![lol]

  3. Michael says:

    It isn’t the government saying these things, it is one lawyer’s interpretation of a law that was almost certainly not intended to be interpreted this way.