PHILADELPHIA -- When it comes to housing discrimination, Realtors say they've gone from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.
Years ago, real estate salespeople would typically follow the wishes of the neighborhoods, steering some racial groups away from buying homes in certain areas while encouraging others.
Then came federal fair-housing laws, and state and local statutes designed to halt housing discrimination.
Slowly, practices began to change, though no one, not even the Realtors, will tell you that everyone today strictly adheres to those laws.
Thus, another round begins. Over the summer, the National Association of Realtors acted to renew the industry's commitment to fair-housing practices by signing an updated Voluntary Affirmative Marketing Agreement (VAMA) with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The new agreement has since been approved by the Pennsylvania Realtors organization, as well as by a number of local boards.
VAMAs are one step, and an important symbol of change: Twenty years ago, Realtors were following the law on fair-housing issues, but "now we're out ahead" of the lawmakers, says Stephen Snell, chairman of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors' Equal Opportunity Committee.
"We've really bought into the concept of fair housing, and we're now encouraging government to make fair-housing laws more inclusive," he says.
For instance, in July the state association's directors urged the Pennsylvania General Assembly to extend anti-discrimination protection to cover sexual orientation.
The problem recently has been bought to the forefront: A recent study by the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force reported "high" rates of anti-gay discrimination in the city and state.
Edward Anderson, president of the Philadelphia Board of Realtors, says that while industry practices have changed, many people's attitudes have not kept pace.
Thus, under the newly updated VAMA, the Philadelphia board is planning to take its educational outreach seminars beyond its own membership and into local neighborhoods.
Nowadays, he said, Realtors who obey the fair-housing laws can face harassment and threats. Some brokers have been threatened after showing homes to people the neighbors don't like, he said.
The VAMA, which dates back to 1975, obliges the board and its members to commit to non-discriminatory practices. It also commits them to establishing procedures that will guarantee that all potential clients are treated equally, regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability or familial status (whether or not the family has children).
The new agreement is largely a refinement of the older ones, although it does shift some of the responsibility for monitoring participants from HUD to the Realtors groups, says Fred Underwood, staff vice president of the NAR's Office of Equal Opportunity.
"The basic purpose of VAMA has stayed the same," he says, "and that's basically to make sure people have fair-housing rights."
Fair-housing laws require agents to sell or show homes to all potential buyers.
People who believe they have suffered housing discriminatio may use a touchtone phone to call the HUD housing discrimination hot line at 1-800-669-9777.