Second U.S. State Might Try to Ban ‘Love Letters’

Even though a preliminary injunction stops an Oregon law banning buyer “love letters” until trial, Rhode Island lawmakers are considering something similar.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – If you’ve put your house on the market in the last few years, you’ve probably been inundated with gushing letters from prospective buyers telling you all about their families and including glossy photos for good measure. And if you’re a buyer trying to compete in Rhode Island’s hot real estate market, there’s a good chance that you’ve spent hours crafting one of these so-called “love letters,” trying to highlight the details that will make you stand out.

Including “love letters” as part of an offer is frowned on by the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, which warns that the practice can lead to intentional and unintentional discrimination. National groups like the National Association of Realtors® also advise against it. But it’s still happening.

“Every single person I’ve talked to has told me that their real estate agent has suggested they do this,” said Rhode Island Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Middletown, who has introduced a bill aimed at outlawing the practice. H7722 would amend the state’s Fair Housing Practices Act to state that “a seller’s agent shall reject any communication other than customary documents in a real estate transaction, including photographs, provided by a buyer.”

The bill notes that the goal is to “help a seller avoid selecting a buyer based on the buyers’ race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or familial status.”

Oregon’s ban on buyers’ ‘love letters’

Last year, Oregon passed a bill that used identical language and became the first state in the nation to ban buyer “love letters.” But last month, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that temporarily blocks the law from going into effect, following a lawsuit from the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.

The organization had argued that the Oregon law was infringing on buyers’ First Amendment rights to free speech. U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernández agreed that the policy was overly broad and “likely unconstitutional” although “laudable” in its aims.

The suit has yet to go to trial, and Cortvriend said she’s waiting to see what happens. It’s possible that the language in her bill will need to be modified, she said. In the meantime, “I think it’s a practice that we should at least acknowledge is happening,” she said.

How ‘love letters’ affect the industry

There isn’t hard data on how many buyers include a “love letter” when they’re making an offer on a house, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the tactic has become more common in the past few years amid increased demand for a small supply of houses.

Last year, one buyer told The Journal that she and her husband had filmed a video with their 8-year-old daughter reading a letter out loud in order to win over a seller. Another included a slideshow that included pictures of pumpkins in her garden, and her children cavorting with baby goats that they had raised.

As charming as they may be, these kinds of “love letters” make the real estate industry uneasy.

“They’re dangerous,” David Salvatore, a lobbyist for the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, told the House committee on municipal government and housing last Thursday. “It’s not a practice that should be tolerated in the real estate industry.”

The concern is that buyers’ “love letters” often give away details like their religion or marital status, which could lead to unconscious bias or result in discrimination claims. Including photos gets even more fraught.

“This is kind of a very quiet way of redlining, potentially,” Cortvriend said.

The Rhode Island Association of Realtors warns on its website that sellers “could be found in violation of fair housing laws” if they accept an offer after reading the buyers’ letter, and their agent could potentially be opening themselves up to legal liability as well.

However, the group isn’t yet throwing its support behind Cortvriend’s bill.

“I’m not certain that we need legislation to address this issue,” Salvatore, who is also a member of the Providence City Council, testified on Thursday. He noted that the lawsuit in Oregon was a concern.

After H7722 received an initial hearing on Thursday, it began drawing attention on social media. Some commenters asked how people who don’t want to sell their homes to outside investors or “flippers” would be able to make that distinction.

“It’s a fair point that I hadn’t thought about,” Cortvriend told The Journal on Monday.

The bill has been held for further study, and Cortvriend said that she’s open to reworking it as needed. Co-sponsors include Representatives June Speakman, Michelle McGaw, Karen Alzate, Lauren Carson, Liana Cassar and Brandon Potter, all Democrats.

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