Should “love letters” in the real estate market be banned?

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The Oregon legislature believes they should, but a Federal Court issued an injunction

Late last year, my son and daughter-in-law decided to buy a new house, mainly to move into the school district where their children attend school and to be closer to their children’s friends. My daughter-in-law is an elementary school teacher who had enrolled her children in the school where she teaches. She’s a great teacher, by the way, as evidenced by being named Richland One teacher of the year several years ago. I’m not just bragging about her, although I am very proud of her. Being a great teacher is part of the story.

They immediately sold their house in our very hot seller’s market and were looking at the daunting process of having to move twice. They got lucky when their real estate agent found the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood. The real estate agent advised them to make an offer at full price, which they did, but apparently several other real estate agents gave the same advice to their customers.

My son and daughter-in-law got lucky again when they learned that she had taught the seller’s children. She wrote a letter to the sellers to make that connection and to express how much they loved the house. They are happily living in that house today.

I learned just this week that the real estate industry has dubbed such attempts to influence sellers “love letters”. And an article published in the oregonlive.com on March 6 entitled “Federal judge blocks Oregon’s first-in-nation ban on homebuyer ‘love letters’” tells the tale of the Oregon legislature attempting to ban these letters. The news story points to a preliminary injunction* issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.

The opinion defined “love letters” as “notes, letters, and pictures that buyers may submit along with their offer to purchase in order to create an emotional connection between sellers and buyers – especially when significant competition exists on a given property.” A practicing real estate agent who is also an Oregon legislator introduced legislation to ban these letters because they “perpetuate systemic issues of bias in real estate transactions.”

The legislation, which passed in 2021, amended a statute that enumerates the duties and obligations owed by a seller’s agent and reads:

In order to help a seller avoid selecting a buyer based on the buyer’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, married status or familial status as prohibited by the Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. 3601 et seq.), a seller’s agent shall reject any communication other than customary documents in a real estate transaction, including photographs, provided by a buyer.

The statute does not define “customary documents”, but Oregon’s Real Estate Commissioner offered guidance: “the Agency interprets (customary documents) to mean disclosure forms, sales agreements, counter offer(s), addenda, and reports. Love letters would not be considered customary documents.”

The plaintiff, a real estate agency, sought a preliminary injunction against Oregon’s real estate commissioner and attorney general against enforcing the statute. The Court said the purpose of the legislation is laudable, to stop discrimination in home ownership based on protected class status, but agreed to issue the preliminary injunction because the legislation “unquestionably” interferes with free speech.

The defendants presented evidence of the history and prevalence of housing discrimination in Oregon, and the Court agreed that considerable racial disparities persist in home ownership. The defendant’s expert opined that the vast majority of “love letters” disclosed the buyer’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, familial status, or disability. He said about half the letters used as evidence in the case included photographs that revealed some information about race, color, sex, and other characteristics. He opined that love letters enable intentional and unintentional discrimination in housing.

The evidence indicated love letters are powerful documents! The opinion cites a study conducted by the real estate company Redfin that found 40% of offers include love letters and that love letters increase the likelihood of having an offer accepted by 52%.  A real estate agent testified that love letters allow her clients to compete with higher offers, including those submitted by investors. The evidence also indicates that real estate agents play a significant role in drafting love letters, including providing templates to their clients.

The plaintiff suggested alternatives to the legislation: (1) greater enforcement of existing fair housing laws; (2) requirement that agents redact client love letters, (3) prohibition on the inclusion of photos; (4) fair housing disclosure requirement in real estate transactions; (5) increased fair housing training for real estate agents; (6) increase the stock of affordable housing; or (7) do nothing and allow individual real estate agents to advise their clients to not send love letters.

The Court indicated the last two alternatives do not merit serious consideration. The other alternatives, however, show that the defendants’ objectives could be achieved in a manner that places less of a burden on otherwise lawful speech.

I am confident we will see more “love letter” legislation and litigation in future.

*Total Real Estate Group, LLC v. Strode, 22 WL 633670, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38653 (D. Or., March 3, 2022)

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