How to Advertise Site without Violating Fair Housing Laws
Whether you advertise your site's low-income units online, in local newspapers or community newsletters, in phone recordings, or by putting up signs, your messages must abide by fair housing law. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits owners and managers of rental housing from discriminating against applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. In addition, many states have passed fair housing laws that ban discrimination on other bases—such as military status, source of income, or sexual orientation.
The following nine “dos and don'ts” will help to ensure that your ads attract eligible applicants without running afoul of fair housing rules.
Don't Use the Terms 'Low Income' or 'Affordable Housing'
A common mistake that owners and managers make is to describe their site as “low income” or “affordable housing” when trying to attract qualified candidates.
“Many states have adopted sources of income as a protected class,” says Terry Jackson, a training, marketing, and management specialist in multifamily properties. She advises owners and managers to list the programs that your site accepts instead—for instance, “We accept Section 8 vouchers.” For 100 percent tax credit sites, you can include the maximum income levels, or simply state: “Rent rates are based on income.”
Don't Highlight Protected Classes in Text
Statements in the ad's headline or message that show favoritism or describe the ideal applicants are red flags for organizations that monitor and enforce fair housing compliance, says Jennifer Nevitt Casey, CEO of strategic planning and marketing firm Bravo Strategic Marketing and president of Rohdie Management. “Try to avoid any statement or copy that is not inclusive of all humans,” she points out.
This tends to occur most often in ads for senior housing, adds Jackson. For instance, phrases like “ideal for seniors,” “for the active lifestyle,” “an exclusive community,” “mature living,” and “adult living” send the message that children are not welcome. Familial status—that is, families with children—is a protected class under the FHA.
Don't Be Too Selective in Campaign Reach
Being too selective in your advertising campaign can put your site at risk for violating fair housing law. However, if your site is federally funded, then you must comply with your state housing agency's Affirmative Fair Housing Marketing Plan, which requires you to target groups who are least likely to know about or apply for housing at your site.
How can you target “least likely to apply” groups without being too selective? The easiest way is to run ads in the language of the group that you need to target, says Jackson. Have your ad translated into that demographic group's language and run it in conjunction with multiple ads (and languages) in various media outlets. Be sure to document those ad campaigns, she adds.
Don't Use Religious Landmarks in Directions
Avoid using religious landmarks, or any landmark associated with a protected class, in written directions to your site (for example, “across the street from St. John's Catholic Church”), says Nevitt Casey.
She recommends using “social neutral” landmarks instead, such as grocery stores (for example, “next door to Kroger”), pharmacies, post office locations—“anything that is neutral to social society is safe,” she says.
Describe Unit and Amenities, Not Residents
Make sure that your advertisements and your site staff describe the available unit accurately and the same to everyone. “The best rule of thumb is to always describe the units and the amenities, not the people renting them,” says Jackson.
Think of the unit that you're advertising as your product, and focus on the specific features of that product, says Nevitt Casey. For instance, “units include washer and dryers.”
Make Sure Photos Portray Diversity
If you use photos of human models in your ads, you must ensure that the images portray a diverse group. HUD advises that “models should be clearly definable as reasonably representing majority and minority groups in the metropolitan area, both sexes, and, when appropriate, families with children. Models, if used, should portray persons in an equal social setting and indicate to the general public that the housing is open to all without regard to race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, and is not for the exclusive use of one such group.”
“Most people think of just racial diversity,” says Jackson. “But you need to have diversity on every level—age, color, disability, and race.” That can be difficult to accomplish if you're using stock photos, she adds.
The safest bet is to use lifestyle photos with no human models, she says. For instance, use photos that show the environment, such as furnished rooms, wall decor, site landscaping, etc.
PRACTICAL POINTER: While many sites prefer to be cautious and avoid using human models, images that include people often can make a site more appealing to home seekers. Nevitt Casey recommends collage photography as an effective way to ensure a diverse mix of human models and include all of the protected classes.
Review Ads for Diversification as a Team
Make sure that you have a process in place to review ads and marketing materials prior to their release. Nevitt Casey recommends having several people examine copy and images to verify that there is diversification in all of the elements.
“It's not a one-person job—it takes different viewpoints and backgrounds to identify potential issues,” she says.
Include Fair Housing Logos in Ads
Jackson says that one of the most common mistakes sites make is failing to include HUD's official Fair Housing logo, statement, and slogan in their ads. HUD offers the following guidelines on how and when they can be used individually:
Fair Housing logo. The Fair Housing logo may be used in any space ads or box ads, and in any other advertising that contains a logo (for example, a logo showing your site's name). In space or box advertising, the Fair Housing logo should meet the following size requirements:
Half-page or more
2″ x 2″
One-eighth page to half-page
1″ x 1″
Four column inches to one-eighth page
½″ x ½″
If other logo types are also used, the Fair Housing logo should be equal in size to the largest of the other logos used. If no other logo is used, the type should be in bold display face and “clearly visible,” says HUD. You can download high-resolution logos in various sizes from HUD's Web site (www.hud.gov/library/bookshelf11/hudgraphics/fheologo.cfm).
Fair Housing statement. The Fair Housing statement may be used in space or box ads in which no logos appear, together with, or in place of, the Fair Housing logo. The statement should occupy 3 percent to 5 percent of the ad:
We are pledged to the letter and spirit of U.S. policy for the achievement of equal housing opportunity throughout the nation. We encourage and support an affirmative advertising and marketing program in which there are no barriers to obtaining housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.
Fair Housing slogan. The Fair Housing slogan—“Equal Housing Opportunity”—may appear alone in line ads (such as ads in column format in newspaper classifieds) that are less than four column inches long.
HUD says that you may omit the Fair Housing slogan from line ads less than four column inches long if your ad is grouped with other ads under a caption stating that the housing is available to all without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Keep in mind that, if you omit the slogan from your ad, you would be relying on the newspaper or other media where the ad is run to make sure that this important requirement is met.
Conduct Periodic Training
Staff education and awareness of fair housing rights and procedures are the keys to eliminating potential problems and issues. Ongoing training is critical, says Nevitt Casey. “We have to keep reminding our teams of the issues, and we have to show them the examples that don't fit the federal guidelines, because some people are visual learners. There has to be a commitment on the manager's part to continually reinforce the message.”
Jennifer Nevitt Casey: CEO, Bravo Strategic Marketing, and President, Rohdie Management Group; (775) 473-1280; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bravostrategicmarketing.com; www.rohdiegroup.com.
Terry Jackson: Owner, Train to Retain; (281) 431-8351; email@example.com; www.traintoretain.com.
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