Message From President Mike Theo: Much Yet to Do

 Mike Theo  |    April 12, 2021
Presidents Message

As he signed the Fair Housing Act into law on April 11, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson said, “We have come some of the way, not near all of it. There is much yet to do.” It was just one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  

1968 was a pivotal year in American history. And while 2020 will go down in history for the disruptions of a worldwide pandemic, it will too be remembered for the racial unrest that detonated across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer. The episode incited months of protests against police and systematic racism in over 150 cities across the country. The scenes were reminiscent of the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was a positive outcome of a tumultuous decade of protests and riots.  

As we recognize and celebrate Fair Housing Month across America in April, it is both proper and necessary to understand and appreciate the lessons learned by the struggle for fair housing in America, and to use those lessons to chart a better future as a result. Perhaps the turbulence of 2020 can have some similar positive impacts on American society today.  

History demonstrates that discrimination in housing in the early 20th century was pervasive, and not just because of individual prejudices, income inequalities or even the institutional actions by lenders and real estate professionals. In his groundbreaking 2017 book, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, housing policy expert Richard Rothstein documented how laws and regulations at the federal, state and local government levels actually promoted housing discrimination in markets across the country. He documents how zoning laws as well as housing and urban development planning created racially segregated communities and destroyed previously integrated neighborhoods. 

To partially ameliorate these government-induced acts of segregation, the 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination regarding the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. These protections have since been expanded and now include protections against discrimination based on disability and family status. It is also important to note that these are only the protected classes under the federal act. The National Association of REALTORS®’ (NAR) Code of Ethics adds sexual orientation and gender identity. Wisconsin law adds sexual orientation; marital status; status as a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking; lawful source of income; age and ancestry.

Against this backdrop, our industry, our profession and our association must ask what the current generation and future generations of REALTORS® can do to improve the fairness of housing to all people in our country, our state and our communities.  

In late 2019, NAR created a new set of fair housing initiatives referred to as “ACT” which stands for Accountability, Culture Change and Training. This expansive set of programs includes a novel fair housing platform called “Fairhaven,” which involves an online simulation training in specific transactional situations that confront bias and discrimination. NAR is also creating recommendations for states to strengthen fair housing education and enforcement of state licensure laws. NAR is launching a public service announcement reaffirming the association’s commitment to fair housing and informing consumers on how to report problems as well as creating more robust fair housing education, including training to overcome unconscious bias.  

The WRA has also been contemplating ways to advance housing fairness here in Wisconsin. In January, the WRA board of directors approved a set of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for 2021 and beyond, which include the following concepts:

Education and outreach 

Provide financial resources to the ongoing education of our members on issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and expand our webinar keynote speaker series to include national speakers and experts on important DEI issues. 


Create a fair housing audit initiative, in possible partnership with NAR, to conduct voluntary audits of brokerages regarding agent conduct to ensure compliance with fair housing laws. In addition, actively promote NAR’s Fairhaven training program.


Engage UW-Madison and/or Marquette University to conduct a study identifying the causes and possible solutions to Wisconsin’s low minority homeownership rates. This research will follow up on the WRA’s 2019 “Falling Behind” report, which addressed Wisconsin’s workforce housing shortages and solutions.  

Ongoing commitment 

Create a task force to identify future WRA DEI initiatives and reconstitute the WRA’s Cultural Diversity & Housing Committee to raise the committee’s profile and create ongoing DEI training and programming opportunities.  

Regulatory reform

In partnership with the Wisconsin League of Municipalities and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), educate and train local officials on how to make incremental ordinance changes to increase housing inventory and improve minority homeownership rates.

Raising minority homeownership rates is a key area for REALTORS® to take a leadership role. It is simultaneously important to individual families, the housing industry and the state as a whole. A recent report by NAR titled “Snapshot of Race and Home Buying in America,” shows the dramatic racial disparity in homeownership rates in Wisconsin. The homeownership rate for white Wisconsinites today is 71% but for black Wisconsinites is just 26%. The Asian homeownership rate is 51%, and the Hispanic rate is 41% in Wisconsin.  

As highlighted in The Color of Law, systemic and institutionalized segregation has denied generations of minority families the benefits of homeownership, and those benefits are substantial. NAR’s study points to data from the Federal Reserve, which shows homeownership is a key factor in building wealth for families and individuals. The Fed’s data showed the net worth of a typical homeowner was 40 times the net worth of a renter. For example, the net worth nationally of a homeowner in 2019 was $255,000, while a renter’s net worth was just $6,300. Moreover, in addition to the financial benefits, homeownership also has significant social benefits for families as well as communities, including better educational performance for kids, higher participation in civic and volunteer activities, better physical health and lower crime rates. Denying access to homeownership for some, in the end, hurts all.  

The initiatives being implemented by NAR and the WRA are a good start, but success in the long run requires not just organizational support but support from individual REALTORS® as well. While REALTORS® alone cannot fix these problems, we can most certainly help, and try we must. In both the short and long term, we will be judged not by the words and commitments we make today, but rather by our actions — today and tomorrow. Toward this end, let us take this journey together. I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas as we chart a sustainable quest to ensure fair housing for all.

As President Johnson said, we have much yet to do.  

Thank you,
Michael Theo
WRA President & CEO

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