Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent over six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column is published every Wednesday.
“What’s the crime like in this neighborhood? Is it safe?” Those are questions every buyer asks at one point or another.
But the response isn’t always super obvious. “You can’t answer that question!” is drilled into the heads of new agents at the same time that brokers, trainers and coaches proclaim, “Be the source of the sources.”
And the conversation can get uncomfortable if you’re unprepared.
Agent: “Sorry Mr. or Mrs. Buyer, but I can’t answer that question.”
Buyer: “What? Why not? Don’t you know this area? We’re paying a lot of money for a home. Heck, we’re paying you a lot of money to help us,” would be a logical and justifiable response from Mrs. or Mr. Buyer.
Agent: “Well, it could lead to redlining, steering or discrimination, and I can’t risk my license. Here is a list of resources for neighborhood crime statistics.”
Buyer: “I just want to know if this is a safe place to live …”
Agent: “Sorry, You need to do your own research.”
It can be awkward. You want to help. Your client needs your help. It’s frustrating for both of you.
This is how I used to answer buyer’s questions on crime, safety and even school quality:
“Here’s the deal. ‘Safe’ means different things to different people. (As does “good” when it comes to schools.) The sad fact is there are no areas that are completely crime free. There are lots of websites that have reams of data on crime statistics. There are also many crimes that go unreported. Sites tend to report crime data differently.
All this means there is no website, or any other source, that can tell you if an area is ‘safe,’ however you may define that. In addition, there are data and studies from very reliable sources that show minorities are disproportionately arrested, convicted and incarcerated. Which means, intentionally or not, that crime stats can lead to discrimination, redlining or steering.
Look, you know I don’t discriminate, and I know you don’t. But the perception is out there. And given the variations and inaccuracies of crime reporting and how that may influence you means it’s a subject matter I just can’t get into. I’m not saying you shouldn’t look into crime data, just keep in mind it’s not infallible. Also, consider talking to the local police Public Information Officer (PIO). They can be a valuable resource. I hope you understand my position.”
I can’t think of a buyer who did not understand after providing a little more detail than, “I can’t answer that question.”
For years, the “script” above seemed to work well for me. Given more recent events, however, there is a very strong case for revision.
Fast forward to Redfin and realtor.com’s recent announcements that they would not be displaying crime data on its websites.
Realtor.com said: “Earlier this month, we removed the crime map layer from all search results on Realtor.com to rethink the safety information we share on Realtor.com and how we can best integrate it as part of a consumer’s home search experience,” which implies they might, at some point, display crime data in some manner.
Redfin said: “We recently decided not to add neighborhood crime data to Redfin.com” and went so far to say they “believe that Redfin – and all real estate sites – should not show neighborhood crime data.”
My initial thought was, “This is significant. Those sites believe in providing consumers with all the information they may need to make a homebuying decision.”
We live in a society and age where information runs free. The internet contains about 2 billion websites and billions more web pages. And it’s growing rapidly. In the time it takes you to read this column, over 2,500 new websites will launch. People want information, and they want it now.
And here you have a couple of the most highly trafficked real estate websites saying they aren’t going to display crime data. (Zillow, to my knowledge, never has displayed crime stats. Trulia, which Zillow Group owns, does.)
So Redfin proclaiming that no real estate site should show neighborhood crime data is a pretty bold call to action.
Why Redfin is right
After giving Redfin’s call a little more thought, I agree with it.
First, crime data doesn’t really equate to “safety.” Here’s one example why it doesn’t. Numerous public registries exist for sex offenders. Many people are required by law to report where they live, or if they move. Ask anyone if they want to live next door to a sex offender, and the universal answer will be, “of course not.”
I have a close friend who is a registered sex offender. His “crime” consisted of getting caught in the back seat of his car in a compromising position with his girlfriend. They were both 17 at the time, engaged in a consensual act. They’ve been married now for almost 20 years.
But because of the age of his girlfriend at the time, he has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He’s a great guy, a perfect neighbor. The children he had later with his “victim” love him.
Crime data can also lead to discrimination, whether that’s intentional or not. We can bury our heads in the sand and think discrimination doesn’t exist in real estate. But The Newsday, “Long Island Divided” study shows it does.
The New York State Senate found discrimination “widespread” and “troubling.” The National Association of Realtors has issued a formal apology for past policies that contributed to segregation and racial inequality nationwide, with NAR president (at that time) Charlie Oppler said, “Because of our past mistakes, the real estate industry has a special role to play in the fight for fair housing.”
Some may be thinking, “But criminals are not a protected class! Fair housing doesn’t apply to them!” Those would be true statements.
However, anyone in the real estate industry would be well-advised to read the statement from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dated April 4, 2016.
Here are a couple of snippets from that document titled, Office of General Counsel Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions:
- “HUD’s Office of General Counsel issues this guidance concerning how the Fair Housing Act applies to the use of criminal history by providers or operators of housing and real-estate related transactions.”
- “ … criminal records-based barriers to housing are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers.”
- “While having a criminal record is not a protected characteristic under the Fair Housing Act, criminal history-based restrictions on housing opportunities violate the Act if, without justification, their burden falls more often on renters or other housing market participants of one race or national origin over another.”
- “A housing provider violates the Fair Housing Act when the provider’s policy or practice has an unjustified discriminatory effect, even when the provider had no intent to discriminate.”
Seriously, take the time to read this 10-page guidance from HUD. Strongly consider not displaying crime data on your websites. Also consider not even providing sources for crime data. You’re rocketing down a very slippery slope if you choose to do so.
Although it might feel like you’re dodging the question, the response to “Is this area safe?” needs to be simply, “Fair housing guidelines prevent me from answering that question. You’ll need to do your own research.”
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree who lives in the Texas Coastal Bend, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired (sort of) but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.