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Fair Housing Advertising: What You Can And Can't Say

Written by on Sunday, 28 December 2003 6:00 pm
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It's all right to advertise a 'bachelor apartment' but you'd better not suggest that only bachelors apply to rent or buy, or you might be in violation of the Fair Housing Act's advertising guidelines enforced by branches of the Fair Housing Offices in each state .

Confused? You're not alone. Acceptable terms and phrases may seem arbitrary to you, but as a housing advertiser, you'd better know which ones can spark a complaint by consumers because many words aren't no-no's until they offend someone, and then it's too late.

So if you've ever wondered whether it's acceptable to call the biggest bedroom in the house the "master," or to call a third-floor apartment a "walk-up," or to call a gated community "exclusive," then this article is for you.

Section 804(c)

According to the Guidance Regarding Advertisements Under 804(c) of the Fair Housing Act, Section 804(c) of the Act "prohibits the making, printing and publishing of advertisements which state a preference, limitation or discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin."

"The prohibition applies to publishers, such as newspapers and directories," continues Section 804(c) as well as to persons and entities who place real estate advertisements. It also applies to advertisements where the underlying property may be exempt from the provisions of the Act, but where the advertisement itself violates the Act. See 42 U.S.C. 3603 (b).

"Publishers and advertisers are responsible under the Act for making, printing, or publishing an advertisement that violates the Act on its face," intones Section 804(c). "Thus, they should not publish or cause to be published an advertisement that on its face expresses a preference, limitation or discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

The advertising guidelines do not go into particular terms or phrases that violate Fair Housing codes, which means it is incumbent upon advertisers (that's you) and publishers (newspapers, real estate books, and yes, your local MLS, etc.) to use common sense.

Guideline examples

Unfortunately, common sense is only attained the hard way sometimes, so the Fair Housing code mentions some specific examples that have already met the complaint test:

  • Race, color, national origin. Real estate advertisements should state no discriminatory preference or limitation on account of race, color, or national origin. Use of words describing the housing, the current or potential residents, or the neighbors or neighborhood in racial or ethnic terms (i.e, white family home, no Irish) will create liability under this section.

    However, advertisements which are facially neutral will not create liability. Thus, complaints over use of phrases such as 'master bedroom,' 'rare find,' or 'desirable neighborhood' should not filed.

  • Religion. Advertisements should not contain an explicit preference, limitation or discrimination on account of religion (i.e. no Jews, Christian home). Advertisements which use the legal name of an entity which contains a religious reference (for example, Roselawn Catholic Home), or those which contain a religious symbol, (such as a cross), standing alone, may indicate religious preference. However, if such an advertisement includes a disclaimer (such as the statement "This Home does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, handicap or familial status") it will not violate the Act. Advertisements containing descriptions of properties (apartment complex with chapel), or services (kosher meals available) do not on their face state a preference for persons likely to make use of those facilities, and are not violations of the Act.

    The use of secularized terms or symbols relating to religious holidays such as Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, or St.Valentine's Day images, or phrases such as Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, or the like does not constitute a violation of the Act.

  • Sex. Advertisements for single family dwellings or separate units in a multi-family dwelling should contain no explicit preference, limitation or discrimination based on sex. Use of the term master bedroom does not constitute a violation of either the sex discrimination provisions or the race discrimination provisions. Terms such as "mother-in-law suite" and "bachelor apartment" are commonly used as physical descriptions of housing units and do not violate the Act.

  • Handicap. Real estate advertisements should not contain explicit exclusions, limitations, or other indications of discrimination based on handicap (i.e., no wheelchairs). Advertisements containing descriptions of properties (great view, fourth-floor walk-up, walk-in closets), services or facilities (jogging trails), or neighborhoods (walk to bus-stop) do not violate the Act. Advertisements describing the conduct required of residents ("non-smoking", "sober") do not violate the Act. Advertisements containing descriptions of accessibility features are lawful (wheelchair ramp).

  • Familial status. Advertisements may not state an explicit preference, limitation or discrimination based on familial status. Advertisements may not contain limitations on the number or ages of children, or state a preference for adults, couples or singles. Advertisements describing the properties (two bedroom, cozy, family room), services and facilities (no bicycles allowed) or neighborhoods (quiet streets) are not facially discriminatory and do not violate the Act.

    NAR says keep it simple

    Still not sure what's safe to say or not? Take a tip from the National Association of Realtors' Office of Legal Affairs , and simply keep the focus on the property and off of people in your ads.

    Avoid the following, say the NAR legal eagles:

  • Using words or phrases that convey the preference of one group over another. When in doubt, use words that describe features on the property ("near six-mile paved exercise trail through woods") rather than the buyers who might want to use the feature ("great for joggers").

  • Describing the dwelling, area, or building residents with words that relate to race, color, religion, age, familial status, or national origin ("Hispanic neighborhood" or "adult building")

  • Using catchwords such as "exclusive," "private," or "integrated" that convey preferences for one group over another or send signals about a community's makeup.

  • Making references to well-known racial, ethnic, or religious landmarks nearby.

    More resources

    For more information, continue to check www.HUD.gov the Fair Housing Act for updates to the guidelines. "We are currently reviewing past guidance from this office and from the Office of General Counsel and will update our guidance as appropriate," says the Fed.

    Also, visit your state or local association's website. Search under "Fair Housing advertising."

    If your state doesn't offer this service, try Google.com using the same search words. Google produced this resource - an actual word and phrase list compiled by the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center .

    Visit Realtor.org for additional articles and tips on Fair Housing advertising.

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      About the author, Blanche Evans

    Individual news stories are based upon the opinions of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of Realty Times.