Can ‘love letters’ from home buyers perpetuate racism?

A common practice nationwide, with fair housing implications.

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.

“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.”

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