Some real estate agents seem eager to post their political views on social media. But, especially in the last year, some of those messages veered toward hate speech, leading the industry to sharpen its ethics rules.
During election season, Nancy Kowalik, a real estate broker, proudly plants signs for local and national Republican candidates in her front yard and outside her real estate office in Mullica Hill, N.J. Step into that Main Street office and you’re likely to get an earful of Ms. Kowalik’s anti-vaccine and anti-mask views.
A scroll through her social media provides an even clearer picture of where she stands: posts bashing Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and Anthony Fauci, are interspersed with property listings, photos of happy home buyers, and a picture of her target shooting with guns she bought last summer.
Ms. Kowalik, 57, said she’s not worried about losing business by being upfront about her politics, an attitude shared by others, like the Texas broker whose widely publicized postings of her storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 put a spotlight on the real estate industry.
“I’ve had so many people ask me ‘Why do you do this? You may be cutting off half your clientele.’ Some don’t agree with me, but others say they love that I put it out there. In my opinion, it hasn’t hurt,” said Ms. Kowalik, noting that her agency’s 2020 business was up by 40 percent over 2019.
The maxim that one should never discuss religion, money or politics at the dinner table or in business seems outdated now, at least with politics, as people are more eager than ever to express their opinions. In the close working relationship between many real estate agents and their clients, exchanging personal views is inevitable. And with the increased use of social media to promote one’s brand, the more personal the messaging, the better.
But mixing politics and real estate can be explosive, and oversharing, especially on social media, has become problematic. The Texas agent and two other real estate agents were arrested in the aftermath of the Capitol attacks, and the National Association of Realtors has rewritten its code of ethics, clamping down on their members’ personal and professional communication in response to a flurry of partisan, sometimes racist, messaging following George Floyd’s death last summer.
The rules may vary from brokerage to brokerage.
In Manhattan, Scott Stewart, an agent with the Corcoran Group, is more circumspect in sharing his political views with clients, which include some of New York City’s wealthiest patrons whose politics run the gamut.
“I’ve been confronted with buyers and sellers on both sides of the aisle,” said Mr. Stewart, 54, a top seller with Corcoran. “I’m an open listener. I hear their point of view, and nod, but don’t generally share. Getting into a negative political conversation has no place in this business.”
That said, Mr. Stewart has encouraged more than 1,000 of his clients to subscribe to the humorous and decidedly liberal newsletter, Dinner Party Talk, created by his husband, Bruce Littlefield. The weekly newsletter calls Donald Trump the “Orange Man” and refers to Republicans as the GOPQ Party, drawing a link to QAnon.
“It speaks to my own views and values,” Mr. Stewart said about the newsletter. “It’s a great way for me to interact with my clients, but I’m very selective about it.”
New agents at Windermere Real Estate, the west coast’s largest regional real estate company, get a social media playbook with tips and advice on how to stay connected with clients using social media, but no clear directives on political discourse. While the Seattle-based company may have once advised their 6,500 agents to steer clear of politics, “things are different now,” according to Shelley Rossi, vice president of communications for Windermere.
“Some of our agents are very political, and posting about politics is an extension of their brand,” Ms. Rossi said. “If it works for them, it’s not really our place to tell them not to do it.”
“We’re going to go in here. Life or death, it doesn’t matter,” said Jennifer Ryan, a broker from Frisco, Texas, speaking into her phone camera on Jan. 6, adding “y’all know who to hire for your Realtor” just before breaching the Capitol Building. Part of a now deleted 21-minute live Facebook video, these comments, along with a photo on a Twitter post of Ms. Ryan standing next to a broken window at the Capitol, are documented in the Justice Department’s record of her arrest.
Two other Texas real estate agents who flew with Ms. Ryan on a private plane to Washington were also among the more than 400 people who have been charged so far in the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol, an event Ms. Ryan described on Twitter that day as “one of the best days of my life.”
Ms. Ryan was arrested in mid-January and charged with disorderly conduct and knowingly entering a restricted building. In early February, Jason Hyland, who arranged the flight from Texas, and Katherine Schwab, were both arrested on the same charges. A day after the Capitol attack, Ms. Schwab’s former employer, Century 21 Mike Bowman in Dallas, posted on Facebook that she was no longer with the agency, noting that “such conduct does not comport with the policies and values of our company.”
Charlie Oppler, the president of the National Association of Realtors, issued a statement on Jan. 6., condemning the assault on the Capitol, but no formal actions have been taken against brokers involved in the siege. Responding to a query about the trade association’s position, Wesley Shaw, a spokesman for the association, wrote that the organization was closely following the legal proceedings connected to the breach and was “committed to taking any action that is deemed appropriate and in the best interest of our association,” but deferred membership qualification decisions to the group’s local associations.
With 1.4 million members, the association is the country’s largest trade organization, representing about half of all licensed real estate agents in the United States. Far from avoiding politics, the organization’s Realtor Political Action Committee is the largest PAC operated on behalf of a trade association in the United States, Mr. Shaw said, giving close to $4 million annually to political candidates on both sides of the aisle who support real estate interests. The association encourages members to get involved in their communities, and to speak out on issues related to housing and property rights. But some may have become too outspoken.
In a year of political and social unrest, the association has been grappling with a wave of social media discourse that became so inflammatory it drove the association to update its code of ethics last November, banning all discriminatory behavior by its members.
After George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last May and the protests that followed, Realtor associations around the country were flooded with complaints about agents posting racist and sexist messages on their social media sites.
Calling out this activity last June, Jennifer Pino, then president of the Atlanta Realtors Association, wrote to the national association: “We cannot continue to allow the Realtor brand to be damaged by these hateful few. This must be stopped.”
“Realtors were being outwardly discriminatory on social media while supposedly adhering to Fair Housing rules,” said Ms. Pino, 49, managing broker at Sotheby’s International Realty’s Buckhead office. “If you were holding an open house, and you had expressed genuine hate for a protected class on social media, how could you possibly treat those people fairly?”
Over the next several months, the association held numerous internal meetings and online forums seeking input to amend the code. In October, Matt Difanis, an Illinois broker who was then chairman of the organization’s professional standards committee, released a video on YouTube where he shared examples from what he called “the mountain of hate speech” posted by agents. The sampling included messages like “I think Black people bring out the worst in us,” and “homosexuals and lesbians are murderers, according to the scripture.”
“The activity of 2020 brought out a lot of reports of bad behavior we hadn’t been privy to before,” said Katie Johnson, the association’s general counsel.
At its November meeting, the board of directors approved the amended code of ethics, banning all discriminatory communication or conduct related to race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status and national origin. Under the former code, brokers were only prohibited from discriminating during real estate transactions, in accordance with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but the code did not address how they behaved outside of their business dealings.
“Realtors are now prohibited from making statements, harassment and slurs against any of the protected classes,” said Ms. Johnson, adding that “you can’t act in that way even in activities unrelated to real estate.”
The new standards apply to members’ business and personal interactions and online activity, which some view as impinging on their rights of free speech, but which the association deemed necessary.
“The prevailing thought was that if your personal self is acting hateful or discriminatory, it is highly unlikely that you won’t act discriminatorily in your real estate business as well,” she said.
Violators can be fined up $15,000 and are subject to removal, as determined by their local Realtor association, according to Ms. Johnson. Being banished from the association could limit agents’ job opportunities, and block their access to multiple listing service properties. Mr. Difanis and others are now conducting monthly training sessions to let members know what is or isn’t allowed under the new rules.
Last summer, Ms. Kowalik, a member of the association, said she “went out and got firearms” for self-protection “when things started to get crazy.” On her personal but publicly viewable Facebook site, she posted photos of herself and her son and daughter practicing at a local shooting range. Eager to share her viewpoint on both her personal and business social media sites, Ms. Kowalik said she thought the group’s new ethical standards might be “crossing some lines and there’s going to be backlash.”
“Now we’re not allowed to quote something out of the Bible,” said Ms. Kowalik, repeating a misinterpretation of the new standards she read online.
Mentioning the Bible is not prohibited, nor is bashing politicians, since politicians aren’t a protected class, Ms. Johnson said.
With his humorous pokes at politicians from both parties, Michael Rasch, an agent in South Florida, is not too worried his Twitter and Instagram posts will incite the wrath of the organization, but he recognizes that sharing his libertarian political views can have an impact on his business.
“I blend my real estate and my personal life together, and sometimes I suffer the consequences,” said Mr. Rasch, of Hallandale Beach. “If you really think my politics will affect our business relationships, then you’re not the client for me.”