- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

The recent surge in online housing advertisements has led to an increase in illegal discriminatory language, fair-housing advocates say.

“The Internet is like the Wild, Wild West. People just speak their minds,” said John Relman, a civil rights attorney in the District. The informality of the system, with users posting their own long ads on free listing spaces without newspaper space constraints and oversight, leads to violations of laws against discrimination, he said.

Several lawsuits have been filed over online ads, but analysts don’t think the online ads are leading to a rash of litigation.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 restricts descriptive language in all housing ads — print, online, handwritten notes on bulletin boards — that state a preference on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, family status or national origin.

“Some people truly believe that the Internet is just allowing people to directly communicate what they say is their business, but once [a listing] is out there in the stream of commerce, it can run afoul of the Fair Housing Act,” Mr. Relman said.

One of the first online language discrimination lawsuits was brought last year by the nonprofit Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston against the online listing service Boston Apartment Rentals, Marc Roos Realty and two other real estate businesses. The parties are working to reach a settlement.

The suit cited as discriminatory language the phrases “all of your neighbors in this loft building are professionals”; “great location for Medical area or Northeastern students”; “four bed … great for four or five people”; “owner lives in the building and is older so not a place for partying.”

Defendant Eric Boyer, owner of BostonApartments.com, which posts an assortment of ads for roommates, rentals and sale properties, said the ultimate responsibility for discriminatory language falls on those posting the ads.

But online services, like newspapers, are responsible for what they publish, said Bryan Greene, director of policy for the Office of Fair Housing at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Although small, owner-occupied buildings may choose tenants based on the owner’s preferences, under the Fair Housing Act they are not allowed to advertise their desires, because simply stating such preferences “suggests it’s OK to discriminate,” said David Harris, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.

“There’s an attempt to balance the basic notion that one has the right to be able to dictate who lives in one’s house against the Fair Housing Act goal of removing housing barriers for members of particular classes,” Mr. Harris said.

“It’s part of what we in this country think: Our home is our castle and we should have some control over where we live,” he said.

Roommate situations are a fuzzy area, he said.

The Washington City Paper was sued in 1998 by the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington for ads expressing illegal roommate preferences.

“Rules about discriminatory speech deprive people of useful information,” said David Bernstein, George Mason University law professor. He said that when he was house hunting, he was frustrated when his agent said she was not allowed to tell him which were near a synagogue.

And because people are allowed to exercise preferences when looking for roommates or housemates in an owner-occupied building, “why waste everyone’s time and energy” by forbidding ads saying so, said Mr. Bernstein, author of a 2003 book called “You Can’t Say That!”

“If we know someone is Jewish and say a place is near a synagogue, there’s a not-so-subtle message that’s where we think Jewish people should move,” said Eric Bove, attorney for the Holyoke, Mass., Housing Discrimination Project.

HUD takes a “common-sense” approach to the issue, Mr. Greene said. About 500 lawsuits over perceived housing bias have been filed each year in the past five years.

“In order to live in a society as diverse as ours, we have to make compromises,” Mr. Harris said.

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