The following is a contributed article from a content partner of Benzinga
Despite enjoying solid fundamentals prior to the outbreak, the real estate industry is reeling due to the crunch caused by the coronavirus pandemic. According to Deloitte, while the impact of the pandemic on companies varies depending on locations and the asset classes that they deal with, stakeholders may have to go through some difficult times in the near term.
Many economies around the world are already in recession. This often bodes ill for real estate markets. Unemployment and business closures typically lead to a rise in bad loans and forfeited leases. Development projects are also expected to slow down. McKinsey reports that the estimated unlevered enterprise value of real estate assets fell at least 25 percent in most sectors in April.
Yet the industry looks to be facing even more nagging troubles. While real estate companies are struggling with the pandemic, players are now finding themselves facing the problem of web accessibility lawsuits. Earlier this year, cases were reported to have been filed against Zillow Group, Inc. ZG, Zumper and Move Inc. by a single plaintiff who claimed that their websites failed to comply with the ADA as they lacked support for visually impaired users. Considering the current circumstances, real estate companies would do well to review their exposure and commit to measures that would minimize their risk from suit.
Working Toward Accessibility
Real estate websites now typically feature property listings, image galleries, and web forms for bids and applications. Property websites can be difficult to design for accessibility. It is typical for these sites to contain hundreds of webpages of listings and are often graphics-heavy due to galleries showcasing properties. Each of these pages must be checked for compliance.
For larger websites that feature plenty of content and get updated constantly, ensuring that all elements meet the standards can be a monumental task. Auditing and applying the necessary changes for remediation on such sites can take weeks or months when done manually. The resources and effort required to do this may also cost thousands of dollars which can be significant enough to prompt many companies to defer their compliance efforts.
To check if their websites are compliant, companies can use a free ADA compliance checker like aCe, developed by web accessibility platform accessiBe. The tool scans websites for accessibility issues, verifies if a site features an accessibility system, and lists which web accessibility guidelines the site fails to meet. Elements such as menus, clickables, navigation, graphics and titles are checked for compliance. If the results indicate their sites fail to meet the standards, companies should understand the risks and take action immediately.
Clamor For Web Accessibility
The drive for wider web accessibility stems from the fundamental issue of inclusion for people with disabilities. Many essential day-to-day activities have gone digital. Unfortunately for the disabled, they are being left out of the digital shift. A Pew Research study revealed that disabled Americans are thrice as likely to have never gone online partly due to the lack of support for accessibility.
To help remedy the situation, disability advocates have resorted to legal means to force companies to make their digital channels usable to the disabled. Most suits are based on the claim that websites are considered places of public accommodation which, according to the ADA, must be accessible.
Since companies can now be held accountable, concerned parties now use the law as a means to put pressure on companies to remedy the situation. ADA lawsuits have risen in recent years: 2018 and 2019 each saw over 2,200 ADA lawsuits filed in US federal courts.
The issue has become quite prevalent that industry groups have warned their members to make web accessibility a priority. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has warned its members to be aware of the issue after learning that real estate brokerages received letters threatening legal action based on the noncompliance of their websites with the ADA.
The Cost Of Noncompliance
Companies can spend significant sums defending against ADA lawsuits. Lawyer fees alone can easily run to thousands of dollars. If found guilty, they will also have to pay fines amounting to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for each subsequent violation.
While the law was meant to protect the common good, this has also allowed some enterprising parties to try and exploit the situation. Some law firms are even seen to capitalize on this trend. Using the threat of ADA lawsuits, they compel real estate companies to settle cases for a fee.
For companies, dealing with negative publicity can also be costly. Considering how the current climate also demands companies to be more socially aware, any semblance of falling short in inclusion can be quite damaging to brand and reputation.
Mitigating Risks While Doing Good
The pandemic is expected to limit consumer mobility in the near future which is accelerating the shift to digital. Even the real estate industry should expect to conduct business through digital means. Considering that over 12 percent of the US population are living with some form of disability, web accessibility will continue to be a prevalent issue.
As such, it would be beneficial for companies to immediately verify if their sites are compliant or have exposure. However, it is also worthwhile to consider that achieving accessibility compliance not only mitigates risks but also is doing what is right.
© 2022 Benzinga.com. Benzinga does not provide investment advice. All rights reserved.