With census forms still missing from roughly 48 million households across the country, the U.S. Census Bureau is
expanding its outreach efforts. As evidence of this, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) recently reported that brokers and agents have been contacted by census workers requesting information about the occupants of properties for which they may be providing real estate services.
According to the Census Bureau, its workers, called ""enumerators,"" are instructed to make at least three personal visits and three telephone calls to each residence for which a mailed census form is not returned. If such contacts do not result in obtaining a completed census form, enumerators are instructed to seek information from potentially knowledgeable ""proxy"" sources, such as neighbors.
The Census Bureau said another potential proxy source from whom some enumerators may be requesting information are real estate brokers or agents identified on a ""For Sale"" sign posted on a property of interest. The information requested may be related to property owners or residents or whether the property is vacant, rented, being offered for sale or rent, or otherwise occupied on an occasional basis.
The question now: Are real estate professionals obligated to provide such information?
NAR said it contacted the Census Bureau to learn more about the duty, if any, of real estate professionals to provide information about the occupants of properties to census workers. The association was alerted to Section 223 of Title 13 of the U.S. Code, which states that it is unlawful for an ""Ã¢â‚¬Â¦owner, proprietor, manager, superintendent, or agent of any hotel, apartment house, boarding or lodging house, tenement, or other building, (to) refuse or willfully neglect, . . . to furnish the names of the occupants of such premises,Ã¢â‚¬Â¦.""
According to the Commerce Department's chief counsel for economic affairs, who has responsibility for the Census Bureau, this language may include some relationships between real estate professional and their clients, but it does not generally apply to the ""ordinary"" case of a real
estate broker or agent taking an exclusive listing for a residential property. Thus, she said, brokers and agents in that circumstance are not legally compelled to provide information about the owners or residents of listed property being marketed for sale.
""As we discussed with the Census Bureau, a real estate professional's authority to provide information requested by enumerators is governed by his or her agreement with the property owner,"" NAR said. ""Because real estate professionals are hired by property owners to market and promote the sale or rental of property, they are generally empowered to provide information about the property, rather than about the property owners or occupants, to persons or entities that have a genuine potential interest in purchasing the property.""
Going forward, NAR said real estate professionals who are contacted by census enumerators for information about property occupants should determine what information to provide by considering the extent to which the owner, in the property listing agreement, has authorized them to offer such information. Alternatively, the association said real estate professionals should consider consulting with the owner for direction as to what information, if any, may be provided, and provide to the enumerator only that information.
It's not just listing agents and brokers who are being contacted, though. Robert Klein, chairman and founder of Safeguard Properties, the largest privately held mortgage field services company in the country, said a few weeks ago, Safeguard was getting up to 1,100 calls a day from individuals all over the country claiming to be census workers looking for information on owners of evicted homes.
Klein said it is Safeguard's practice to list its number on evicted homes for which it is servicing, so if somebody has an issue with the property, they can call the company. As a result, census workers have been calling that number to request information regarding the owner(s) of the property.
""If it relates to the security of a property, we'll help them,"" Klein said. ""But if it relates to the ownership, I'm not going to give that information out.""
Klein said his main concern is that he doesn't know who's calling or whether or not that individual is actually with the Census Bureau, so he has instructed his staff not to give out any information. ""I'm not authorized to give out any information to anybody,"" Klein said. ""We want to comply with these requests, but we at least want verification of who's asking for this information.""
To stay in compliance, Safeguard created an 800-number with a recording specifically for Census Bureau requests. The recording asks census enumerators to provide Safeguard with an official request for information, and the company will then forward these requests on to its clients.