A consensus is forming among the real estate portals.
Last week, Redfin and realtor.com both announced that they wouldn’t include crime data on their websites. Then on Tuesday, Zillow-owned Trulia said it too would make the same move. Zillow already didn’t include such data, meaning that by the beginning of 2022 all the biggest portals in real estate will be on the same page.
Redfin also didn’t previously include crime data on its site and its move represents a decision to maintain the status quo on the issue. But the company has also been a leader in this movement. Redfin tied with realtor.com for being the first to take a public stand, and was the most forceful in its call for other real estate websites to follow suit.
In that light, Inman spoke with Redfin Chief Growth Officer Christian Taubman to dig into what exactly is going on. Inman also reached out to a handful on working industry members to gauge how this news is going over in the trenches.
Here are the biggest issues and questions emerging from the portals’ news.
Will consumers still get the data?
When he announced Redfin’s decision, Taubman also called on other real estate websites to ditch crime data. But speaking with Inman, Taubman said the idea wasn’t that “this information shouldn’t be available” at all to consumers. Instead, he said it shouldn’t be on real estate websites, specifically, in part thanks to real estate’s fraught history with discriminatory practices such as redlining.
“I do think it’s something that we need to be particularly thoughtful about in real estate and I think any real estate site should be taking that approach,” Taubman noted. “But I don’t think the data shouldn’t be available at all.”
He went on to say that interested consumers will still go find crime information on their own, but noted that the process of putting in extra effort may “force them to think about it a little bit more.”
“I think that might be a reasonable state for the world to be in,” Taubman added.
What was wrong with crime data?
Taubman laid out Redfin’s quarrels with the data in his blog post, but reiterated to Inman that there were basically two options. Either Redfin could choose to include government crime data or it could include survey data.
Redfin leaders discussed both options over the course of multiple months, but when it came to the government data, “we just ended up being really worried about it showing a complete picture, that a lot is missing” Taubman said.
And when it came to survey data, the “disadvantage is they’re directly going to reflect any bias.”
“We really just couldn’t find anything that didn’t fall into those categories,” he said.
Are the portals building an alternative?
The short answer here appears to be no.
While various portals have indicated in their statements a desire to answer consumers’ questions about safety, none have mentioned any concrete plan to provide or build an alternative that consumers could use in lieu of more conventional data.
Taubman told Inman that Redfin ultimately took a “rigorous look” at the available crime data and never found anything that met its standard for inclusion on its website. He went on to say that Redfin would like to address this issue eventually, and has discussed some “nebulous ideas,” but doesn’t have any firm solution or specific plan in the short term.
“That’s something we would like to be able to solve in the long term,” he said.
What about other types of data that could reinforce bias?
Though the portals are eschewing crime data, they do include a variety of other types of information that could theoretically also reinforce stereotypes. For instance, most portals display information about school quality.
Asked about school data, Taubman said “that’s one that we’ve discussed and thought about significantly as well.” However, Redfin ultimately concluded that school data — which the company receives from school rating non-profit GreatSchools — was simply higher quality than the available crime data.
“We felt that in that case, we’re able to get data that don’t have quite as many blind spots, and that are an accurate enough source of information,” Taubman said.
Taubman’s point ultimately was that available crime data had flaws and inaccuracies that other data sets lack. As a result, the company didn’t want to put its stamp of approval on that data — even if consumers do still have questions about crime and safety — while other data sets on topics such as schools met the company’s standards.
What is the ultimate objective of removing crime data?
Inman asked Taubman if there was a particular discriminatory act buyers were committing that would be corrected by removing crime data from listings. For example, Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman has been an outspoken critic of pocket listings in part because he has argued they undermine equal access to housing.
Taubman said there wasn’t a specific discriminatory issue Redfin was trying to address on the buyer side of the real estate transaction. Instead, he said the goal is a more general effort to avoid exposing consumers to data that “is potentially skewed or bias.”
“I think that in itself is important and a step forward,” he said. “It’s more about that than something else you’d be able to measure.”
Inman also asked if a lack of crime data could drive phenomena such as gentrification. But Taubman said his company is focused on data accuracy and not on “downstream impacts.”
“We’re not in the business of trying to shape the housing market in some sort of way,” he said.
How have real estate professionals responded?
The portals’ decisions to avoid crime data has been a controversial one within the real estate community, with agents falling on either side of the debate.
Nicole Mickle, an Orlando-based agent with Momentum Luxury Real Estate, told Inman she wasn’t thrilled by the portals’ decision to avoid crime data because the “consumer is going to make the inference that this is hiding crime.” Mickle often works with homebuyers who are relocating from other states — she’s had clients from New York, Washington, D.C., Minnesota, and other regions — and said that such consumers need to find information about every aspect of their potential new neighborhood. That includes researching things like bike trails and other amenities, but it also means looking at crime statistics as well.
“We need to fully go ahead and allow people to see everything,” Mickle argued, later noting that her clients do find crime data on third party websites but that doing so doesn’t seem to be any better than encountering it on a site like Redfin.
Mickle also said there are issues with discrimination in real estate, for example in the appraisal industry where research has shown that homeowners in predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods are more likely to see their homes valued below contract prices. By comparison, forcing consumers to go to third party websites for crime data seems like a small thing, Mickle said, that strikes her as being more about “scoring some brownie points” than about making substantive change.
“I think we have much bigger fish to fry,” she concluded.
Chris Pape, a Coldwell Banker agent based in North Carolina, said consumers come to agents for advice and expertise, and policies that prevent agents from talking about crime and safety “interrupt the trust between the client and the agent.”
Pape doesn’t begrudge the portals themselves for deciding to avoid crime data, but argued that members of the industry more generally should be allowed to discuss difficult things such as crime and safety.
“You’re supposed to sit down and have an adult conversation with people,” he said. “You have to talk about the good, bad and ugly of every scenario. That’s the whole point of hiring an agent.”
Randy Carroll, a sales manager for real estate tech startup Ruuster and former manager at CRM-maker Chime, also doesn’t fault the portals. And he noted that brokerages and agents have long had rules against sharing crime data. But he also said the situation raises a broader philosophical question about the role of crime data in real estate generally.
“Should information like that be illegal to begin with?” Carroll wondered. “In my opinion no, I don’t think so. I don’t think that should violate fair housing laws. Crime data is a really important factor in determining where people want to live.”
He also pushed back against the idea that crime data reinforces stereotypes, noting that a historically white neighborhood in his current hometown of Atlanta has seen a spike in violent crime recently, but his own predominantly Black neighborhood has remained safer.
“I could use that data to show that the stereotypes are actually wrong,” he said.
Teresa Boardman, owner of Minnesota’s Boardman Realty (and an Inman contributor), said most of her clients do their own research on crime anyway, and having that information on the portals “doesn’t really add much value.” She also took a position that was similar to Taubman’s, saying that while crime data will remain available to consumers, it shouldn’t be the real estate industry, specifically, that is providing it.
“It comes down to the real estate industry not being the entity that decides if the neighborhood is high crime or not,” she said.
The takeaway is that the portals’ announcements regarding crime data have prompted a debate not just about the portals themselves, but about the role of data generally in the industry.
As for Redfin, Taubman said there has been a range of responses to the company specifically, and that “it’s not a straightforward decision that we expected everyone to applaud.” However, nearly a week after the initial announcement, Redfin “still feels good about the decision we made.”
“This is a complicated area,” Taubman said. “We thought about it a lot and we feel we made the right decision.”