Can 'love letters' from home buyers perpetuate racism? This

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Scott and Erin Iler say writing a love letter helped them buy their home in Monrovia, California

DJ and Lauren Bowser had been hunting for a home in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles for months when they bid on a 1920s Spanish bungalow.

They offered nearly $200,000 over the asking price of $1.29 million with friendly terms.

To sweeten the deal, their agent advised them to enclose a heartfelt letter and family snapshots, too. They felt awkward about it – “you have a sense of being judged” – so they mostly wrote about how much Bear, their 11-pound, 5-year-old Chihuahua terrier mix, would enjoy running around in the grassy backyard after living in an apartment her whole life.

They beat out multiple offers, including one that was higher than theirs.

“We were told Bear won us the house,” DJ Bowser said.

In hot markets where multiple bidders are jockeying for the same house, homebuyers will do just about anything to get their offer noticed – and that includes writing “love letters” in hopes of making a personal connection with a seller.

These ardent pitches often rave about a home’s natural light or historic character. They also contain deeply personal details about people’s lives along with photographs, even videos.

Increasingly, though, real estate agents are refusing to accept or deliver these love letters as concerns grow that they violate fair housing laws.

Oregon is the first state to ban the practice. Starting in January, a real estate agent must reject any communication that would reveal the buyer's race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or familial status, according to the new law.

“We are not impeding on their freedom of speech or written communication. We are limiting transmission of communications that are not relevant and could potentially be breaking fair housing laws,” Democratic Rep. Mark Meek, the Oregon lawmaker who sponsored the legislation, told USA TODAY.

While most people are familiar with racist practices like redlining, restrictive covenants and predatory lending, love letters and their accompanying photographs are “the dirty little secret of real estate,” Meek said.

"For Sale" signs are seen outside a home in Glenview, Illinois

“Buyers send letters and photos of their family to the seller in hopes of having a connection, and in many cases they do,” he said. “I began wondering if these letters were exacerbating disparities out there.”

Fair-housing experts say love letters can create bias, even if it’s unintentional. They tap into that desire “to sell your house to another family that’s like my family,” University of Missouri law professor Rigel Oliveri said.

Even though a love letter helped them buy a house, DJ Bowser says he supports the new Oregon law, too.

"You wonder why sellers choose the families that they choose or the individuals that they choose to purchase their homes, and I hope it’s not based on biases," he said. "However, in the end, these letters create a bias no matter what.”

Fair housing violation or 'woke cancel culture'?

The real estate industry is split on the practice.

Cambron Elsey, an agent in Charleston, South Carolina, who has been opposed to love letters for years, says taking them out of the equation is a “huge service” to the real estate profession.

But Ken Calhoon, a broker in El Dorado County, California, says legislating against the letters is unnecessary and just another example of “woke cancel culture” run amok.

In the 45 years he has been selling real estate, Calhoon says he has never seen a seller refuse to accept an offer or choose one offer over another based on skin color or a legally protected status.

“Will they have a letter-monitoring department to review and approve letters, or perhaps simply revoke the First Amendment?” he said. “What happens if a potential buyer stops by in person to say hello? Should we lock them up? What does the state do when a potential buyer has FedEx deliver a letter directly to the seller? What about an email or text?”

Seattle real estate attorney Craig Blackmon agrees with the Oregon law. But if other states don’t ban love letters, homebuyers and their agents will continue to send them, he says.

“This is about rooting out systemic racism, and real estate is one of the prime areas in which white privilege has benefited people,” Blackmon said. “That said, if my clients have a really sweet family, a cute kid and a nice little puppy, guess what? I am going to have them send a love letter if I am not barred by the rules from doing it.”

Ken Calhoon, a real estate broker in El Dorado County, California

Meek, the Oregon lawmaker who is also a real estate agent, says he came up with the idea while co-chairing a state task force on racial disparities in homeownership. A home is often Americans’ most valuable asset. Yet, nationally and in Oregon, Black Americans are the group least likely to own one.

According to a 2019 report from Meek’s task force, more than double the percentage of white households — 65.1% — own a home in Oregon. Compared with the national average, the homeownership rate in Oregon is 28% lower for Black people, but only 12% lower for non-Hispanic white people, a USA TODAY analysis of Census Bureau and state data found.

A "sale pending" sign is posted outside a single family home in Derry, New Hampshire.

No other state has followed Oregon’s lead. And Bryan Greene, vice president of policy advocacy for the National Association of Realtors, says he’s unaware of any lawsuits over love letters.

“I appreciate that, out of an abundance of caution, people want to address these issues to remove one more potential barrier to housing opportunity,” he said. “But it’s really hard to assess how appreciable a concern this is.”

Real estate industry reckoning with racist past

The backlash against love letters is part of an industrywide reckoning with its complicity in decades of housing discrimination and segregation that kept Black Americans from homeownership.

In 2019, Newsday published the findings of a three-year undercover investigation that exposed discriminatory home-selling practices by real estate agents that helped keep neighborhoods in Long Island, New York, segregated. Agents treated people of color unequally, especially Black residents, the investigative found.

Gwendolene Newton, a Chicago real estate broker and president of the Dearborn Realtist Board, the nation’s oldest African American real estate association.

Can 'love letters' from home buyers perpetuate racism? This

Efforts to reform racist practices and increase Black homeownership intensified after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In June, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge, announced a plan to add 3 million new Black homeowners in the United States by 2030. As of 2019, there were 6.45 million Black homeowners, according to Census Bureau data. More than 100 groups are supporting the effort, including the National Association of Realtors.

"The love letter could influence the seller to favor one buyer over the other. In a world where discrimination still exists, that same love letter would allow someone to discriminate if they chose to or subject that buyer to an unconscious bias," said Gwendolene Newton, a Chicago real estate broker and president of the Dearborn Realtist Board, the nation’s oldest African American real estate association.

Amy Kong, a real estate agent in San Bruno, California, said she has no trouble discouraging her sellers, many of them Asian, from reading love letters.

“The sellers I deal with understand that there are people out there being discriminated against,” said Kong, president of the Asian American Real Estate Association of America.

Amy Kong, a real estate agent in San Bruno, California, and president of the Asian American Real Estate Association of America.

Love letters got national attention last year when the National Association of Realtors warned members they were not as harmless as they seem.

Learning more about the people who want to buy your home is tempting, said Mary Pope-Handy, a real estate agent in Los Gatos, California, but she discourages homeowners from reading love letters.

“They see a photograph of a family with infant twins and people just melt. They just think, ‘I really want to give this family a home.’ Or this family is from my same Lutheran community or they are from my same Sikh temple,” Pope-Handy said. “It’s not like they are saying they are not going to sell to somebody because they are this or that ethnicity. They know that’s wrong. But favoritism, they don’t think of it as being illegal and it actually is.”

Listing agents at The Keyes Company in Miami use a spreadsheet so that sellers can compare multiple offers based on objective information such as price, type of loan, down payment and closing date.

When Paula Renaldo, the firm’s chief marketing officer, and her husband Anthony sold the starter home they bought in 2008 to pay for their children’s college education, they created a spreadsheet, too.

A young woman who had been outbid on home after home tried to present them with a love letter, but they rejected it. Her offer was not the highest and they sold the home to another buyer.

“The market is so tight right now and there are so many offers, people are trying any which way to set themselves apart,” Paula Renaldo said. “I tell the listing agents: Whatever love letters you get, go ahead and build a bonfire with them.”

The Arizona Association of Realtors says listing agents should educate sellers about fair housing laws and the pitfalls of love letters, according to its CEO K. Michelle Lind.

It also recommends that members avoid assisting in drafting love letters and should never read them. Instead, they should document all offers received and the seller’s objective reasons for accepting an offer.

“It’s nearly impossible to write a love letter to a seller without in some way, shape or form mentioning a protected class,” said Seth Task, president of Ohio Realtors, which also recommends its members not use love letters. “It’s just best for an agent and a seller to not even remotely put themselves in a position of being accused of a violation of fair housing laws.”

Home bidding wars fuel use of love letters

But as stratospheric prices and record low housing inventory fuel bidding wars across the country, love letters are more popular than ever.

Realtors say they don’t want to put their buyers at a disadvantage in competitive situations by refusing to pass them along. Besides, they say, sellers are swayed first and foremost by the offering price and terms, not platitudes and promises.

Mark Strüb, a real estate agent in Austin, Texas

Mark Strüb, a real estate agent in Austin, Texas, invites all his clients to submit a personal letter and most of them do. His policy: “It can’t hurt.”

“I have had listing agents say, ‘we loved the letter’ when they accept the offer. Realistically, they also loved the cash price,” Strüb said. “It’s price and terms all day long but letters can make a difference if offers are close.”

Apparently, the right words can be persuasive.

In 2019, Redfin studied the most effective strategies to win a bidding war. All-cash offers more than tripled a buyer’s odds. Writing a love letter came in second, increasing a buyer’s chances by 59%.

Just ask Erin and Scott Iler. In 2018, they were renting in Monrovia, California, watching helplessly as home prices soared beyond their reach.

Fearing they’d never be able to afford a home for their two young daughters, they were considering moving out of state when they spotted a 1930s Tudor home with a steep gabled roof, arched doorways and barreled ceilings.

The home was in need of major repairs and was being sold “as is,” but already had multiple offers over the asking price of $775,000.

“The seller’s agent told me that the woman who lived here for over 50 years died and her children were the trustees,” Erin Iler said.

Their real estate agent warned that it was a long shot but, along with their offer at list price, the Ilers enclosed a letter.

They told the homeowners that they were both teachers in the local school district who wanted to put down roots in a community they love and that they dreamed of their girls growing up in the home. Their offer was accepted 24 hours later.

For some Realtors, a change of heart

Over the past 20 years, their Realtor, Donna Baker, says many of her buyers wrote similar letters.

“These love letters definitely pulled at the heartstrings of sellers who were emotionally attached to their homes, and it gave my clients a leg up on the competition,” she said.

And that’s why Baker avoids them now when she lists homes.

“There is too much opportunity for sellers to accept an offer from a buyer who matches their idea of someone who will ‘fit into their neighborhood,’” she said.

Buffalo, New York, real estate agent Lesleylinda Lannan has also had a change of heart.

A few years ago she represented a couple who fell in love with a townhouse. The husband was a military veteran and had a home loan backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs which involved more red tape. The couple made an emotional appeal to the homeowners and enclosed their wedding photo.

Theirs was the first offer and the homeowners, an older couple who were downsizing, were so touched that they accepted and canceled the open house.

Today Lannan says she no longer passes along these love letters to sellers. In fact, she reveals nothing about the buyers when she presents offers, not even their names.

“It has nothing to do with how likable you are or how much you like the property,” she said. “It’s a business deal and everybody should have a fair chance. We have a long, sordid history of housing discrimination in this country, and it’s time for it to stop.”

Contributing: Jayme Fraser

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Home buyer love letters banned for possible Fair Housing Act violation