Imagine this scenario for a second. You have a group of people searching for an apartment in the same city. A young mother with kids, a disabled gentleman with a service animal, a couple from Puerto Rico, and a wealthy, middle aged man. The owner of the apartment community denies each person the ability to see the unit until he gets to the wealthy man, and then he essentially rolls out the red carpet. Sounds like a practice we left in the 1960’s right? Well, based on a charge recently filed by HUD against social media giant Facebook for alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act, apparently not. The charge alleges specifically that Facebook allowed landlords and home sellers to discriminate in their advertising platforms.
Essentially, Facebook’s platform would allow advertisers to toggle certain characteristics of people they did not wish to see their advertisements. Sounds initially innocent right? Just effective and targeted advertising? Not quite. Some of the groups who were selected not to receive certain housing advertisements were “women in the workforce,” “moms of grade school kids,” and people interested in “accessibility” or “service animals.” Indeed, there were even options to block “Hispanic culture” and “Puerto Rican Islanders”. While this list is far from exhaustive, even one of these exclusions is enough to be damning. I’m not sure how much more blatant this discrimination could be; these examples highlight an obvious violation of virtually every single protected class (gender, religion, ethnicity, familial status, disability). At its core, Facebook was legitimately allowing targeting advertisements based solely on protected characteristics.
So, what’s the bottom line? Fair Housing 101= excluding specific groups, due to protected characteristics, from seeing your advertisements is discriminatory. You just cannot do it. And here is a note of caution for everyone–while at first glance, Facebook is the one in hot water, there may be substantial potential liability for the advertisers (read you) as well. While Facebook is the platform through which the discrimination occurred, the choices to discriminate based on a specific protected characteristic were toggled by the housing providers/ landlords themselves. Therefore, I cannot stress enough the importance of inclusive advertising. I have written about this before, but it bears repeating—don’t even think about specifying what your “ideal” tenant would be. If you are going to advertise for your property, you need to ensure that your advertisement can be reached by everyone. What began as a possible $19,787 fine for Facebook may very well turn out to be one of the biggest HUD discrimination claims in recent history.