'Broken Windws' Theory Can Be Applied To Real Estate Regulation

Written by Posted On Monday, 07 December 2015 13:08

Real estate regulators should consider adopting the "broken windows" theory of policing. They might discover -- as various police departments have -- that by paying attention to relatively minor transgressions, they are liable to experience a reduction in the number of major transgressions.

I imagine that regulators around the country would welcome a reduction in major transgressions by licensees. Certainly, the California Bureau of Real Estate (Cal BRE) could stand to have its workload lightened in that regard. Last spring, the Bureau reported a 25% increase from the previous year in disciplinary actions. An April, 2015, article by First Tuesday magazine noted that the Department of Consumer Affairs (Cal BRE's parent organization) had reported that in 2013-2014 the Bureau had received 6,225 complaints, which resulted in 2,290 investigations. To put that in perspective, note that there are slightly less than 100 employees in the enforcement division.

The broken windows theory is a criminological theory, applied to urban environments, which was proposed in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. It posits that "maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening."

Britannica observes that "law enforcement scholars and police tended to focus on serious crime, that is, the major concern was with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape, robbery, and murder. Wilson and Kelling took a different view. They saw serious crime as the final result of a lengthier chain of events, theorizing that crime emanated from disorder and that if disorder were eliminated, then serious crimes would not occur."

The theory is not that the perpetrators of ignored minor crimes would go on to become the perpetrators of major ones, but rather that the conditions that left minor crimes unattended led to an environment in which more serious crimes were likely to occur.

Probably the most notable application of the broken windows theory was seen in the 1990s work of New York Police Commissioner William Bratton. In 1994 Bratton introduced the broken-windows based "quality of life initiative". The initiative cracked down on panhandling, disorderly behavior, public drinking and other "low level" crimes. "When Bratton resigned in 1996, felonies were down almost 40 percent in New York, and the homicide rate had been halved."

So, how might all this be applied to the work of a state real estate regulator? Well, as it is now, regulators such as Cal BRE are inclined -- like the NYPD of the 90s -- to focus on the big transgressions. Who has the time or inclination to go after "little fish" when there are bad guys perpetrating real estate fraud and scams against widows, the elderly, etc. etc. ?

But suppose, just suppose, that those who do commit the "big crimes" are, in some significant part, encouraged to do so because they operate in a "neighborhood" where "small" crimes are widespread and go unnoticed, or more significantly, unpunished

I believe that, by and large, California real estate licensees have little sense that the Bureau has a widespread presence of agents who are vigilantly on the look-out for even minor violations of real estate regulations. And they would be right. It is a small step from that to a perception that real estate wrong-doings are not likely to be punished.

But what if there were a surge in citations for the blatant "little wrongs" that agents do all the time? It just might, as broken windows policing did, lead to a reduction in the major wrongs.

Non-compliant advertisements are the broken windows of the real estate world. In California, this is particularly clear, because the law has (finally and thankfully) been made unambiguous. Civil Code 10159.6 says that in advertising containing a team name "The responsible broker's identity shall be displayed as prominently and conspicuously as the team name…" This practically never happens. Ads that display a team name in very large font and with conspicuous placement will often carry the broker's identity -- if it is there at all -- in much smaller font, off in an inconspicuous location.

Real estate enforcement personnel could spend mornings in their pajamas clipping such ads from local papers. The violations are self-evident. Citations could be issued forthwith. (Indeed, were the department to outsource the tasks, the fines would probably pay for it.) The word would soon get out. "The Bureau cares even about the little things." And that, as the broken windows theory posits, might lead the potential real bad guys to recalculate their prospects of success.

Bob Hunt is a director of the California Association of Realtors®. He is the author of Real Estate the Ethical Way. His email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Bob Hunt

Bob Hunt is a former director of the National Association of Realtors and is author of Ethics at Work and Real Estate the Ethical Way. A graduate of Princeton with a master's degree from UCLA in philosophy, Hunt has served as a U.S. Marine, Realtor association president in South Orange County, and director of the California Association of Realtors, and is an award-winning Realtor. Contact Bob at scbhunt@aol.com.

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