Should sites like Redfin.com, Realtor.com, and Trulia.com have crime figures on their websites for home shoppers? Here are the arguments now being made on either side of the question. We start with a brief rundown of specific real estate sites that are formulating new policy.
Why Redfin Won’t Show Crime Data
On Dec. 13, 2021, Redfin’s chief growth officer Christian Taubman explained why the firm won’t put crime data on its real estate website, Redfin.com. The company’s reasoning goes this way:
- Most crimes in the U.S. go unreported to local officers or the FBI; some reported incidents aren’t crimes; and most crimes that get reported will never be solved.
- Because crime reports and crime surveys do not always paint accurate or particularly useful pictures, “there’s too great a risk of this inaccuracy reinforcing racial bias” to show the data.
- In any case, people look to buy homes not on the basis of crime, but rather on safety.
The company is now figuring out just what kind of safety issues buyers and renters need to know about, so Redfin.com can post appropriate safety information in the months ahead. Taubman explains:
Each and every time we add data to Redfin.com we will consider the accuracy and likely impact of that change. Sometimes that will result in us deciding not to add data to the site, and sometimes that will result in us deciding to add the data.
Redfin has already made the decision to leave crime data off the site. Indeed, Redfin, according to its releases, doesn’t think any real estate sites should display what constitutes crime data today.
On Dec. 21, 2021, about a week after Redfin made its announcements, Inman.com reported that Trulia, a company owned by Zillow since 2015, is about to stop showing crime data. A rep told Inman that Trulia is committed to informing its readers, and does supply publicly available data to “ensure accuracy, equity, and transparency.” Trulia notes that crime data isn’t measured uniformly across communities. The differences may perpetuate inaccuracies and bias. So, Trulia says, it “will no longer display crime data on our site as of early 2022.”
Why Data Was Removed at Realtor.com
Realtor.com decided — also in December 2021 — to delete a crime map overlay from its available search tools. Here, a concern is that crime maps may be rooted in redlining maps that effectively left whole groups out potential equity-building through much of the 20th century. Historically, the real estate sphere has “rated neighborhoods using metrics that unfairly penalize communities of color.”
Those are the words of David Doctorow, CEO of Move, Inc., which runs Realtor.com®. It’s the National Association of Realtors® public-facing website. Removing crime data is important, says Doctorow, if a real estate company wants to champion fair housing.
Doctorow said the Realtor.com site aims to equip consumers with valuable, fair and accurate local information. The “fair” part indicates an interest in averting disadvantages for majority-Black and Spanish-speaking communities found on the website.
It’s no coincidence that a year earlier, in November 2020 at a virtual meeting hosted by The Hill, NAR president Charlie Oppler officially apologized for ways the association had contributed to segregation and racial inequality.
“We can’t go back to fix the mistakes of the past, but we can look at this problem squarely in the eye,” Oppler said. The National Association of Realtors opposed fair housing law in the past, and supported residential racial segregation practices such as redlining — deliberately ruling out mortgage and insurance applications based on personal characteristics. Oppler said NAR’s role “was shameful, and we are sorry.” Today, NAR positions itself as a proponent of an expanded Fair Housing Act, and works with the Urban Institute and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers on eliminating bias from the path to homeownership.
Affiliated real estate groups are amplifying the message. On Dec. 17, 2021, the FloridaRealtors® website informed its readers that Realtor.com and Redfin are “taking a stand” because of the potential of crime indicators on real estate sites to perpetuate racial inequity.
The Other Side: The Argument That Crime Data Should Appear
Arguments are being made for displaying crime data. Some say home shoppers, including minority home shoppers, would want to see available data, and decide for themselves whether it’s credible or useful.
On Dec. 22, 2021, Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, published a column titled Woke Crime Data Blackout. This column blames “the age of cancel culture” for decisions at real estate brokerages Realtor.com and Redfin to withhold crime rate data in the name of racial fairness.
Dreher notes that Realtor.com has been conversing with fair housing advocates to reach the decisions. For the real estate sites, says Dreher, it’s a matter of accumulating “virtue points.” Dreher quotes Realtor.com as stating that “the long history of redlining and racist housing covenants in the United States” informs its reasoning on how publishing crime data on real estate sites could perpetuate racial bias. To that, Dreher says “the idea that woke capitalists in the real estate business would rather sell people houses in riskier neighborhoods for crime rather than give them data and let the customer decide what to do with that knowledge infuriates me.”
For the Industry, Steering Clear of Legal Liability May Be Paramount
Perhaps the decision to leave crime data off their websites isn’t about the rise of a “woke” online real estate movement, but rather the companies’ interest in keeping away from the federal courts. The Biden administration is taking fair housing law seriously. For example, in June 2021, Biden spoke of a new task force to address race-correlated disparities in home appraisals.
And to the extent that these online companies act as brokerages, they are not permitted to steer clients out of communities. As NAR puts the point:
“Steering” is the practice of influencing a buyer’s choice of communities based upon one of the protected characteristics under the Fair Housing Act, which are race, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status, or national origin…If a client requests a “nice,” “good,” or “safe” neighborhood, a real estate professional could unintentionally steer a client by excluding certain areas based on his or her own perceptions of what those terms means.
In the final analysis, the best way for home shoppers to know an area is to go and experience it. Otherwise, buyers may miss opportunities to live in communities and homes they’ll love.
Christian Taubman for Redfin News: Neighborhood Crime Data Doesn’t Belong on Real Estate Sites (Dec. 13, 2021).
Cordilia James for The Real Deal: Realtor.com Nixes Crime Map in Effort to Promote Fair Housing (Dec. 15, 2021).
Jim Dalrymple for Inman News: Zillow-Owned Trulia Will Ditch Crime Data Beginning in 2022 (Dec. 21, 2021).
NAR Newsroom: NAR President Charlie Oppler Apologizes for Past Policies that Contributed to Racial Inequality (Nov. 19, 2020).
FloridaRealtors®.com: Realtor.com, Redfin Remove Listings’ Crime Data (Dec. 17, 2021; via Information, Inc. and based on Realtor.com®: “An Invitation to the Industry: Address Fair Housing Together” (Dec. 13, 2021) and Washington Examiner: “Two Major Real Estate Search Engines Nix Crime Data in Racial Equity Push” (Dec. 14, 2021).
Todd Bishop for GeekWire: Trulia to Drop Neighborhood Crime Data From Home Listings, After Redfin Speaks Out Against Practice (Dec. 22, 2021).
Rob Dreher for The American Conservative: “Woke Crime Data Blackout” (Dec. 22, 2021).