What Facebook discrimination lawsuit teaches rental housing providers

With Facebook embroiled in controversy as of late, it’s gone from bad to worse. Now is the perfect time for landlords and property managers to heed this lesson: brush up on fair housing laws.

If you’ve ever posted photos on Facebook of your kids at soccer practice, talked about being a stay-at-home mom or a disabled veteran, “liked” Telemundo or wrote about learning English as a second language, Facebook advertisers may have been able to target you – or exclude you – from viewing housing ads.

That was the claim by a recently filed federal lawsuit lodged by civil rights groups that don't "like" the “egregious and shocking” discrimination perpetrated by the social media giant that has been allegedly serving up ads that fly in the face of the Fair Housing Act.

The $440 billion advertising company has built its success around the ease by which marketers can finitely target audiences, but now the magic of transmogrifying every like, status update and mouse click into a detailed consumer profile has the potential to enable marketers to exclude groups based on “ethnic affinities,” from seeing ads.

“Facebook’s platform is the virtual equivalent of posting a for-rent sign that says ‘No families with young kids’ or ‘No women’… But it does so in an insidious and stealth manner so that people have no clue they have been excluded on the basis of family status or sex.” 
~ Fred Freiberg, executive director of Fair Housing Justice Center and a plaintiff in the lawsuit

The lawsuit comes in the wake of Facebook’s loose handling of data, the likes of which the company has never seen in it’s 14-year history of addressing privacy concerns.

It’s been said that the Internet is the largest experiment in anarchy that humans have ever had, but Bornstein Law predicted early in the Airbnb phenomena that the law will eventually catch up with technology and restore order to the anarchism. Sure enough, regulators reined in the laissez faire nature of unregistered short-term rental units and now have the upper hand. There is no reason to believe that lawmakers and regulators will not restore a similar equilibrium with Facebook and ensure the real estate industry will not use the platform as a proxy to minorities.

 

We have always preached that rental housing providers should couch their words carefully when using Craigslist and other online portals when adverting their rentals. Seemingly innocuous language can easily cross the lines into fair housing law violations.

Defending these type of discrimination lawsuits can be a hugely expensive undertaking, and unlike tech giants, owners and property managers do not have the vast legal resources and billions of dollars in their coffers.

Avoiding perilous discrimination suits begins with an education of all employees. With a high attrition rate, property managers are especially vulnerable to exposing themselves to discrimination claims through the actions of employees that have not familiarized themselves with what is permissible and what is not. As a good starting point, read our previous articles on this subject.

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Effective advertising often collides with fair housing laws



Daniel is the founding attorney of Bornstein Law, the San Francisco Bay Area's foremost authority on managing landlord-tenant relationships, property management issues, and complex real estate litigation. Having protected the rights of property owners for over 23 years, he is also renowned for his educational workshops, his speaking engagements with numerous organizations, and as an expert witness. Contact his office today.