Matt Difanis - broker-owner of RE/MAX Realty Associates in Champaign and 2018 President of Illinois REALTORS® - PHOTO BY JOANNA STRAUSS
Matt Difanis – broker-owner of RE/MAX Realty Associates in Champaign and 2018 President of  Illinois REALTORS® – PHOTO BY JOANNA STRAUSS

For Illinois REALTORS® President Matt Difanis, 2018 marks a chance to commemorate the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act and to build the association for the future through a focus on inclusion and diversity.

The anniversary provides an important moment in the association’s history to celebrate the Act and its far-reaching impact on the industry. As Difanis notes, many of those in the real estate industry today have no direct connection to the struggle for housing equality.

In fact, new REALTORS®’ only connection to fair housing may be through mandated training on how to avoid discriminatory practices they receive when they train to become brokers.

Difanis said it wasn’t until he heard the personal stories of colleagues who lived through the early days of the battle for fair housing protections that he gained a new appreciation for the Act and what it stands for.

This year, Difanis has led the association to frankly assess its role in promoting fair housing. A video featuring Illinois REALTORS® who played prominent roles in the debate and a forum held at the association’s January Public Policy Meetings underscore his commitment to building bridges to diverse communities.

“In terms of the Illinois REALTORS® and the history, our goal in doing this project is we want to make sure that we’re providing a completely unvarnished look at the history,” Difanis said. “It’s way too easy to come into the business today and if you’re not made aware of that history, you may not realize that there really is a compelling moral imperative to continue making progress,”

For REALTORS®, the journey to embracing the Act wasn’t a quick one.

“The REALTOR® trade organization gradually adopted and updated its Code of Ethics to promote and recognize fair housing,” he said. “But for a very long time the Code of Ethics itself was discriminatory and recognized that neighborhoods needed to be protected by not introducing populations that would be deemed injurious to property values.”

Difanis teaches classes to those seeking to become REALTORS® and emphasizes that they need to take care they aren’t unwittingly discriminating.

He uses the scenario of a parent working with a REALTOR® to find good housing for a daughter who will be attending college. A REALTOR® has to be careful not to become the arbiter of what is a “safe” neighborhood or weigh in on where she should live.

“It’s an issue that has a serious impact today and if you aren’t sensitive to it, there’s a very good chance that one way or another you would find yourself perpetuating existing housing patterns that probably are not in the best interest of the client or broader society,” Difanis said.

Illinois is a diverse state and it is important that REALTOR® organizations reflect that, he said.

One way to do that is to encourage more minority practitioners and women to take on leadership roles within the state REALTOR® organization. There’s an extensive talent pool of REALTORS® involved in minority-focused real estate trade groups and more outreach must be done to encourage them to become more active, he said.

But outreach doesn’t always have to come from the top down.

“Embrace those who don’t look like you by spending time engaging in organizations that cater to a constituency that is not you,” he said.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, Illinois REALTORS® worked with The Storytellers Studios to produce a video telling the story of REALTOR® involvement, past and present, in the fair housing movement. In the video, Illinois REALTOR® members share their personal experiences in the fight for equal opportunity in housing and reflect on what more needs to be done.

50 Years Of Fair Housing

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law. Fifty years later, Illinois REALTORS® commemorates the progress that has been made to provide equal housing opportunity for all and looks at the challenges that remain.