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Tips for Landlords: How to Comply with the Law When Advertising Your Rental Property

After reading the actual statute, you should have a better understanding of the Fair Housing Act, but what constitutes a violation of the law may surprise you, so make sure you have a firm understanding before advertising your property.

Whether you're the owner of a single rental unit or a large apartment complex, you're subject to fair housing laws whenever you advertise. Here's what the law provides:

"Persons placing advertisements. A failure by persons placing advertisements to use the criteria contained in this part, when found in connection with the investigation of a complaint alleging the making or use of discriminatory advertisements, will be considered … (to determine whether) a discriminatory housing practice has occurred or is about to occur."

Any discrimination in rental housing advertising is illegal and can result in severe penalties.

Showing no preference

Everyone who owns residential rental property has a mental image of the perfect residents. Such preferences are perfectly understandable, but fair housing laws prohibits any advertising that shows a preference for certain groups that have a higher concentration of members who have the desired characteristics.

Deciding whether words or images convey a "preference" depends upon how a "reasonable person" is likely to interpret them. Names of places that could suggest a preference for members of one or more protected classes — "one block from Avon Country Club" or "private golf course nearby" or "exclusive neighborhood" convey a message that some residents may not be welcome. Here's the law on this subject:

"(f) Area (location) description. Names of facilities (that) cater to a particular racial, national origin or religious group, such as country club or private school designations, or names of facilities which are used exclusively by one sex may indicate a preference."

Instead of devising and communicating a profile of the "perfect" resident, just describe the physical aspects of the property. Talk about the great room or the spacious office fitted with bookshelves and Internet access. If you limit yourself to the features and amenities you have to offer and stay away from the type of resident you're trying to lure to your property, you should be fine.

Exceptions to the "preference" rules

Of course, you'll find exceptions to the rules. Advertisements that use descriptive terms or images that encourage members of two protected classes — Familial Status and Handicap — are acceptable, because families and disabled persons historically have been especially subjected to housing discrimination. Thus, ads containing language such as "children welcome," "family friendly," or "handicapped/wheelchair accessible" are okay.

Here's the specific statutory language that authorizes preferential advertising:

"(b) Affirmative advertising efforts. Nothing in this part shall be construed to restrict advertising efforts designed to attract persons to dwellings who would not ordinarily be expected to apply, when such efforts are pursuant to an affirmative marketing program or undertaken to remedy the effects of prior discrimination in connection with the advertising or marketing of dwellings."

Steer clear of limitations

Advertising that expresses limitations about desired renters may be blatant, such as "graduate students preferred," or more subtle, such as "no international students," but in both cases, such advertising violates fair housing laws. The risk is much greater when human models appear in the ad. Showing white families enjoying the property amenities, for example, suggests that minorities might not be welcome.

Avoiding discriminatory advertising

The days when landlords could use blatantly discriminatory language in their advertising messages — "no Negroes," "no Irish," "adults only" — are, fortunately, long past. However, there are more subtle ways to suggest that a prospect of a certain group is unwelcome.

Fortunately, HUD has put together a list of commonly used advertising words and expressions that have been found to be discriminatory. Although this list isn't comprehensive, it can help you focus on the most common examples of what's right and wrong, legal and illegal.

The Fair Housing Act also highlights any selective use of advertising media, content, or, as noted above, human models as discriminatory:

  • Selective use of advertising media or content: The law specifically mentions that using English exclusively as a means of advertising to the majority population in the metropolitan area, when media in other languages is available, can be discriminatory. Selectively using billboards, brochures, the equal opportunity slogan or logo, or other advertising as a means of reaching only a segment of the population is also illegal.

  • Selective use of human models: This is an obvious example of possible discrimination, one that critics have labeled the "Barbie factor." Depicting persons of only one color, or one sex, or of adults only, without a complementary advertising campaign directed at members of other protected classes, is illegal.

Using the Equal Housing Opportunity logo, statement, or slogan

The Fair Housing Act also requires that advertisements contain the Equal Opportunity Housing logo, statement, or slogan to communicate inclusiveness The following explains these three:

  • Statement: "We are pledged to the letter and spirit of us 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."

  • Slogan: "Equal Housing Opportunity."

  • Logo

    [Credit: Illustration courtesy of Equal Housing Opportunity]
    Credit: Illustration courtesy of Equal Housing Opportunity

The law reads as follows:

"All advertising of residential real estate for sale, rent, or financing should contain an equal housing opportunity logotype, statement, or slogan as a means of educating the home-seeking public that the property is available to all persons."

The law also states that, where the Equal Housing Opportunity statement is used, "the advertisement may also include a statement regarding the coverage of any local fair housing or human rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of dwellings."

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