Sunday, July 20, 2014
When you shop online for a home, some Web sites let you specify the characteristics of the community where you want to live. Maybe you’re looking for excellent schools, low crime rates, affordable prices and low property taxes.
But should you also be able to search for a home based on the racial or ethnic composition of the neighborhood? Should real estate sites supply detailed information on the percentages of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Caucasians and people of mixed race in the immediate area?
Some civil rights advocates cite the Fair Housing Act and say absolutely not: Connecting racial data with home sale transactions is barred by federal law, they argue, whether it’s done by a real estate agent or posted on a Web site.
But companies whose sites offer neighborhood-level racial, ethnic, linguistic and similar demographic details strongly disagree. Much of their data, they say, come from government sources such as the Census Bureau. It’s all public information and already available to anyone who makes an effort to find it, so how could its dissemination in connection with property searches possibly violate federal law?
Controversy over all this bubbled up last week when the head of the National Fair Housing Alliance — an umbrella group that represents more than 200 state and local civil rights organizations — said the alliance is investigating the practices of online search firms that have real estate tie-ins, whether as brokerages or as referral-generating services for realty agents.