Follow Five Rules to Avoid Fair Housing Problems in New Media
As site owners and managers increasingly direct more of their marketing focus online in an effort to attract new prospects, engage current residents to encourage renewals and generate referrals, and recruit potential employees, there are fair housing considerations they need to be mindful of.
Often new media marketing is driven by tech-savvy professionals, but—regardless of the bells and whistles on your Web site or Facebook page—it's up to you to ensure compliance with old-school fair housing principles.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) makes it unlawful “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”
These provisions apply broadly to all spoken, written, and online statements—including words, phrases, pictures, symbols, and other graphic images—that suggest that the housing is not available to particular groups of people because of a protected characteristic, according to HUD. The test is whether the statement discourages an “ordinary reader or listener” from living at your site by suggesting that it has a preference for or discriminates against prospects, applicants, or residents based on a protected characteristic.
Though the law was enacted well before the Internet became part of daily life, most experts agree that sites are accountable for discriminatory statements in any form of communications—whether online or in traditional media sources. Indeed, HUD has stated that the FHA's ban on discriminatory advertising applies equally to traditional forms of media and the Internet. To help you avoid allegations of discrimination online, here are five rules to abide by.
Rule #1: Comply with Fair Housing Rules in Online Ads
In turning to new media sources to advertise your site, remember the basic fair housing rules banning discriminatory statements. Those rules prohibit sites from making, printing, or publishing any statement that indicates a preference for or against anyone based on a characteristic protected under federal, state, or local law.
Consequently, it's unlawful to advertise—whether in print or online—that a vacancy is unavailable to members of protected classes. Most notorious are ads expressing a preference against families with children, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance, which has reported rampant discrimination against families with children in online advertising.
For example, in September 2011, a Massachusetts property management company agreed to settle allegations that it posted rental advertisements on craigs-list that discriminated against prospects with children or who received rental assistance, according to a statement by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. The settlement is the result of a continuing statewide investigation by the Attorney General's Office into reports of widespread discriminatory housing advertisements on the Internet.
The complaint claimed that the company posted ads that a vacant unit wasn't available to applicants with children under the age of 6 or with Section 8 vouchers. Allegedly, a state investigator posed as a father with a young child when he called the company, but he was steered away from renting the advertised property and told that he would have to sign a release form before he could rent the property. Under Massachusetts law, it's illegal to post advertisements that indicate a discriminatory bias against persons with children or who receive rental assistance; state lead paint law also bans discrimination based on the landlord's desire not to remedy lead-based paint hazards due to the presence of children under 6 in the household.
Under the settlement, the company agreed to pay $10,000 to the Commonwealth, with $3,000 suspended pending compliance with a broad range of measures intended to prevent future fair housing violations.
Rule #2: Avoid Pitfalls on Web Site
To varying degrees, owners and managers have taken marketing efforts to the next level to maintain an online presence. Often, the first step is to create a Web site, which may include pictures and descriptions of the site and its amenities, available floor plans, maps and features of the neighborhood, and information about how to contact the site.
Since the basic purpose of a Web site is to depict the advantages of living at the site, it's the same as traditional forms of advertising under fair housing law, according to fair housing experts Nadeen Green and Doug Chasick. When selecting content for the Web site, be sure that any words, symbols, or pictures don't suggest that your site has a preference—for or against—anyone based on characteristics protected under federal, state, or local law.
The Web site may describe the grounds, its units, and features—but not the kind of people who may want to live there. Avoid phrases like, “Perfect for singles,” which imply a preference against families with children. Maps and directions are helpful, but avoid references to religious institutions or racially significant landmarks.
Posting pictures of people, including residents, employees, and others also raise potential fair housing concerns. Just as in traditional advertising, it's unlawful to use “human models” in photographs, drawings, or other graphics to indicate exclusiveness because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.
Before posting pictures online, take a step back to look at them—it's a problem if they feature white-only subjects, because it may imply an unlawful preference against racial or ethnic minorities. Instead, choose pictures that reflect diversity so that anyone visiting the site would understand that your site is open to all without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status.
Finally, just as you would do in traditional advertising and marketing materials, use the Equal Housing Opportunity logo or statement in online ads and on your Web site to demonstrate your commitment to comply with fair housing law.
Rule #3: Develop a Social Media Policy
A coordinated strategy is the best way to take advantage of all the benefits of social media tools, which may include a company Web site, Facebook page, Twitter postings, YouTube videos, and blogs. Developing a strategy will provide a blueprint for using these tools effectively—and to avoid pitfalls that may emerge along the way. A key aspect of the strategy is to identify the one “ultimate” owner of all social media activity, who would be the final arbiter of content, recommends Chasick.
Create a policy with guidelines on the use of social media tools. Among other things, the policy should describe your site's philosophy regarding social media, how it should be used, which tools and platforms are covered under the policy, and legal matters, such as libel, copyright, and privacy concerns. In addition, the policy should address employee behavior, such as the importance of adhering to the Terms of Service for Facebook and other tools and sites, and the consequences for failing to do so.
Include fair housing concerns, so everyone understands that the ramifications of posting comments or pictures that imply a preference for or against anyone based on his race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status (unless, as to familial status, the site qualifies as senior housing)—and any other characteristic protected under state or local law. Provide fair housing training to the employees responsible for administering the site's Facebook page, writing blog entries, or engaging in social networking sites. They may be media-savvy, but they may not be well versed in the nuances of the fair housing advertising rules.
No matter which platform you use, keep in mind that social media requires interaction. Don't simply set up a Facebook page and forget it. For one thing, it will undermine your marketing efforts, potentially driving traffic away from your site if it appears that you're unresponsive. That's especially true if someone posts negative comments about your site, management, employees, or other problems on your Facebook page or other social media sites.
Pay particular attention to any comments that signal a potential fair housing problem, such as a complaint with racial or ethnic overtones. Respond promptly, and take steps to resolve the problem to avoid an informal grievance from developing into a formal fair housing complaint.
Finally, be prepared to react quickly to any offensive or discriminatory comments posted by third parties on your Web site, blog, or other social media sites. Include strong language in a disclaimer on your Web site, blog, or Facebook page that you have the right to remove any posts or comments that are discriminatory, obscene, include profanity, or attack or harass others. Perform damage control by removing the offensive materials as soon as possible and emphasizing your site's commitment to fair housing law.
Rule #4: Don't Resort to Email Profiling
Be on guard to avoid accusations of “email profiling,” advises Green. Historically, fair housing testing involved sending paired testers—different only in a particular protected characteristic, such as race—to visit a property to see if they were treated differently. Fair housing organizations still employ that tactic, but then added telephone campaigns to uncover “linguistic profiling—treating testers differently based on vocal qualities that suggested their race, ethnic background, or country of origin.
Recently, Green says, testers have moved on to look into “email profiling—that is, unlawfully screening prospects based on information gleaned from their email address or online guest cards. Often, email addresses can provide insight into a prospect's race, color, national origin, gender, familial status, religious affiliation—even disability, she points out.
Ignoring or delaying response to a prospect's inquiry based on a protected characteristic gleaned from his email address could lead to a fair housing complaint. To prevent such problems, Green advises sites to follow policies and procedures to respond promptly to all email and guest card communications. In addition to the timeliness of the response, Chasick says, it's important to maintain consistency in the type of information in—and format of—each email response.
Rule #5: Keep ‘TMI’ at Bay
The wealth of information available online can be both a blessing and a curse. A quick online search could turn up all kinds of information about prospects and residents, including their race, sex, age, income level, and other demographic characteristics. Furthermore, checking out their Facebook pages often provides TMI—Too Much Information—about their private lives, including photos, interests, friends, group affiliations, relationships, and lifestyle choices.
It may be tempting to access this information, but it could lead to fair housing trouble if it's misused to weed out applicants or renew a resident's lease, warns Green. The key to fair housing compliance is consistency, so decisions about who may live at your site should be based on your standard policies on applicant screening and resident renewal, not subjective judgments about people based on personal information you may learn online.
Doug Chasick, CPM®, CAPS, CAS, Adv. RAM, CLP, SLE, CDEI: Senior VP, Multifamily Professional Services, CallSource, (888) 222-1214; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nadeen W. Green, Esq.: Senior counsel, For Rent Media Solutions, 294 Interstate N. Pkwy., Ste. 100, Atlanta, GA 30339; (770) 801-2406; email@example.com.