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ADA and Fair Housing Compliance In Real Estate

Posted by Morgan Carey on Tuesday, July 7th, 2020 at 10:49pm.

Recently some of our clients in Florida have reported receiving letters from lawyers threatening legal action against them due to fair housing violations. These letters generally are claiming that the client’s real estate website is not accessible according to ADA and that constitutes discrimination under the fair housing act. 

This is very similar to what we saw a few years ago when lawyers were going after ADA specifically (not related to fair housing) but this addition of “Fair Housing” is a new twist and one we feel all customers should take seriously.  

Why it really sucks

When a law firm (or someone pretending to be a law firm) sends you a threatening letter it can be very stressful. Generally, these actions not only demand compensation (which can feel like a shakedown) but they also threaten to do serious harm to your reputation and impact your business. I mean who wants to be found guilty of discrimination against the disabled, right? 

What makes it really frustrating is that while it is truly a legal requirement in the United States for public websites to make themselves “accessible” there are no clear guidelines on what that means. As such predatory firms attempt to create fear and confusion around the topic and make you feel like you have done something wrong or are in legal trouble. 

These processes end up costing you time, money (lawyers and remediation), sleep, and peace of mind. It feels like a shakedown because it kind of is. At the same time, it is not illegal to file a discrimination lawsuit where there may be just-cause or at the very least there is ambiguity. So really, you are forced to deal with it or risk said lawsuit and of course these firms are counting on the fact that you know that it is always less costly and time-consuming to settle vs fight. They are hoping to get paid off. 

Why is it different this time? 

Some of our friends and lawyer colleagues have advised us that while ADA claims generally do not allow any damages apart from demanding that a website make changes and perhaps legal fees, with the addition of the “Fair Housing” claim we are advised that there is the potential for the plaintiffs to seek additional damages on top of just legal fees and remediation of the site. We are not lawyers, and this is not legal advice (I’ll say this a lot in this article) but this is the general consensus of what we are being told. We recommend you speak to your local legal professional for appropriate local advice.

What do you need to do? 

Steps you should take if you receive a letter regarding either ADA or fair housing violations related to accessibility. (Note this is based on REW opinion and is not meant to be legal advice of any kind)

1: Speak to your lawyer: Laws are local and your advice should be too. Anything you read here is not meant to be a replacement for legal advice. 

2: Respond to the letter: Let them know you have received their correspondence and appreciate them alerting you to improvements that you can make to your website to make it more accessible. Also, let them know you will be speaking to your web developer and taking steps to address any accessibility issues within your control.

3: Read this article and take action: It’s not enough to say you are going to do something about it, you actually need to do something about it. There are many things you can do (that we are happy to teach you) that are very low effort but will demonstrate that care and that you have made every reasonable attempt to improve the accessibility of your website. 

4: Add an accessibility notice to your website: A good example is the one located here: https://www.leadingre.com/accessibility. This is yet again another way to demonstrate you are taking accessibility and fair housing laws seriously.

5: Go the extra mile: We think it’s worth it to go the extra mile to be more accessible. Not only will this get trolls off your back, but you can also leverage it in your marketing for both recruiting and for gaining new customers. Once you are more accessible than anyone else in your market, make it known. Build relationships with local organizations passionate about accessibility and those that support the disabled. This will turn into great press as well as referrals and more closed transactions. The CDC reports that 26% (1 in 4) citizens of the United States have a disability of some kind. Should you not do all you can to accommodate this massive percentage of the population? Our advice is that accessibility not only feels great to invest in, but it’s a great investment for your business.  

Steps we are taking towards accessibility 

I’d like to share with you the steps that we at REW are taking to address accessibility in our products and services. Just like we have advised you to do, we feel it’s important for us to be leaders in our industry and take responsibility for making sure we do all we can to improve accessibility on the web. 

The Audit: Our first step towards accessibility was to hire one of the world’s foremost experts in the subjects of web accessibility and ADA compliance Kris Revenburgh, Founder of Accessible.org & lawyer, to consult for REW and provide a full audit our latest front end framework Vision. 

Collectively our teams have quite a considerable amount of knowledge on the subjects of web accessibility however in hiring Kris to do our audit, it allowed us to round out our understanding of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and also glean insights into how to conduct a thorough audit and report back findings to assist our customers in their investment decisions related to accessibility. 

We have since completed this audit, and while we scored very well in some areas, there were other areas Kris was able to point out that could be improved to make our framework even more accessible. 

Applying ADA recommendations: Once we had received our audit of all the main pages of the vision framework (including the IDX) we built a team of designers that included our main designer from corporate marketing as well as a project manager that has 10+ years specifically in real estate web development & design to apply all of the recommendations made by Kris and our internal teams to the Vision website. This work is ongoing and is set to be completed in the coming weeks. 

Additional training for all web departments: REW leadership has already begun planning the implementation of a robust training program targeting all web development & support groups at Real Estate Webmasters as well as our account management team. This means programming, design, SEO, R & D, project management, customer service reps, technical support reps, customer success managers will all be receiving additional training to ensure the highest level of accessibility knowledge in the entire real estate technology industry. 

Create Recommendations for our customers: In parallel to our own accessibility updates and training, we will be providing free advice via the REW Forums on how to make your website more accessible. These forums (and this advice) is not just for current REW customers, but for our entire industry to access with the goal of promoting greater accessibility across all real estate websites. 

Much of what we advise will be what customers themselves can do on their own at no charge in order to improve their websites ADA and fair housing compliance but we will also discuss more advanced options that may require customizations to code or advanced programming such as dynamically tagging IDX images or adding ARIA labels to form elements.  

It can be a lot trying to understand all of the legal discussions going on without a law degree and the complex-sounding recommendations at https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/ however we are here to help with your understanding, and also advise you on what we think you “have” to do, vs what are extra efforts that you can put in to go the extra mile when it comes to accessibility. 

Providing ADA Audits and Remediation: For those customers who do not have the time or expertise internally to perform the tasks that they themselves could perform on their own content or for those customers wanting to invest additional efforts into more advanced accessibility, we are here to help. Existing REW customers who have retainers need only ask to have their retainer team spend time on ADA compliance and those who do not have retainers, our account managers can assist you in setting one up in order to have this work done for you. 

 What does it cost to be compliant? 

You’re probably asking yourself by now, what does it cost to be more accessible? The answer is every website is different. Some clients have only a few pages of content with not much media on them, while others have literally thousands of pages and make use of advanced customizations and leverage video and imagery to the highest level, as such it’s important to review your website to get an accurate estimate. 

In general, to produce a full audit and report with recommendations you are looking at somewhere between 3-5 hours per page assuming an average level of complexity. To do the remediation as well, your cost would depend on the complexity of the content (and if there is any custom programming to address) and also the level of compliance required. 

W3C has several levels of compliance. Your cost for remediation will depend on the level of compliance you seek as well as the complexity of your page. The levels are as follows: 

A (most basic), recommended for everyone, likely enough to stop lawyers from harassing you. 

AA: More complex, recommended for anyone truly wanted to provide a great user experience for those with disabilities and not just do the bare minimum. 

AAA: The most robust of recommendations, probably not necessary for any real estate website, but for those that truly want to do a deep dive into accessibility, this is your ticket. 

For a single page (audit and remediation) without complex programming a rough order of magnitude (ROM) might look something like this: 

A: 5-10 hours
AA: 10-20 hours
AAA: 20+

Keep in mind, you do not generally pay for “every page” as many of the elements that are required to be adjusted are global such as navigation, footers, dynamic content etc. So it’s not like you pay 100x if you have 100 pages. But also remember that these estimates do not include auditing or remediation for complex applications or programming. That can get considerably more expensive. 

If you’d like to learn more about accessibility for your real estate website, I encourage you to join the REW Forums and if you are feeling a bit lost with all of this, or you need help making your website more accessible please visit www.rew.com and fill out any contact form. We’d be more than happy to assist you with your ADA compliance needs. 

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