Published: December 2006

Online roommate ads defy spirit of Fair Housing Act

Roommates.com allows its patrons can post housing ads containing statements about tenant preferences that would be considered discriminatory under the federal Fair Housing Act. Housing advocates await the outcome of a lawsuit they filed against the website.

The Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley and the Fair Housing Council of San Diego is awaiting a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on a lawsuit it filed against a commercial website that allow landlords to post rental vacancies. The suit charges that the sites allow landlords to publish discriminatory housing ads in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

In 2003, recognizing that the internet would be used as a major tool in the search for housing and advertising, the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council along with its southern California counterpart, the Fair Housing Council of San Diego, filed a lawsuit in federal court against Roommates.com, alleging that its housing classifieds violated federal and state fair housing laws.

[Warning: These examples contain offensive language. Consumer Action believes that these statements are inappropriate.]

The housing groups identified ads that stated:

  • “Prefer white male roommates”
  • “Please no white trash”
  • “I am not looking for black Muslims”
  • “No drugs, kids or animals”
  • “I prefer a Christian male, no women allowed in home, living for Christ…”
  • “No psychos or anyone on mental medication”

These ads, if displayed in print media, would be illegal. The suit argues that such ads should be just as illegal online as off.

On Sept. 20, 2006, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stated in guidance issued to its fair housing regional directors that the department has concluded that it is illegal for websites to publish discriminatory advertisements. The guidance was issued in response to the argument of some providers that they are exempt from liability under the Fair Housing Act because of a provision in the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which limits the liability of interactive computer services for content originating with a third party user of the service.

In its guidance, HUD concluded that the Communications Decency Act does not make websites immune from liability under the Fair Housing Act or from liability under state and local laws that HUD has certified as substantially equivalent to the Fair Housing Act.

Previous suits filed in other jurisdictions across the country have not fared well in court because of the Communications Decency Act argument. Unfortunately, even a favorable ruling by the Ninth Circuit does not ensure a resolution to the problem.

One answer might be to find a legislative fix at the federal level that would simply state that the CDA does not preempt Fair Housing Act provisions in online housing ads. The Internet as we know it did not exist at the time the Fair Housing Act was enacted. Unless we deal with the problem at the congressional level, fair housing issues will be compelled to seek relief through the courts, which unfortunately appear to be receptive to the Communications Decency Act argument.

For More Information

Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley

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