Advertising and Fair Housing – What you can say and what to avoid

When we think of Fair Housing guidelines, we need to make sure we separate fact from fiction and myth from reality. In an effort to follow the letter of the law, it seems some have gone off the deep end and taken HUD’s meaning a bit too literally. The intent of the guidelines is to provide people an equal opportunity to pursue housing. It is to discourage the unfair practices of the past by some who would choose those who could buy or rent from them based on their appearance, religion or perceived lifestyle.

Just - Don’t.
When you are advertising residential real estate, you must avoid discriminatory language or images used in a context that would indicate a violation of the Fair Housing Act. For example, avoid using words that are descriptive of the owner, landlord or tenants: white private home, colored home, Jewish home, Hispanic residence, adult building. Similarly, there’s no proper use of words to indicate race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender, handicap, familial status or national origin. Note that nothing in this part restricts the inclusion of information about the availability of accessible housing or dwellings which are intended and operated for occupancy by older persons and which constitute senior housing.

Locally, it’s important to be aware of colloquialisms and directions to real estate that can imply a discriminatory preference, limitation or exclusion. For example, using specific directions which refer to a racially or ethnically significant area may indicate a preference for that group. In the same way, using the specific name of a facility which caters to a particular racial, ethnic or religious group, such as a country club, church or private school may signal a preference. If you’re uncertain, check with your MLS or find another way to describe the location.

Perhaps the hardest advertising guidelines for REALTORS to meet are the ones regarding the selective use of advertising. Selective advertising means that the advertisement is intended to exclude a particular gender, race, or other group. There are different ways to discriminate by selective advertising. HUD understands that budgets aren’t infinite and that you can’t necessarily advertise in every media outlet, in every language, etc. However, if a pattern emerges with several questionable practices in combination, there might be cause for concern. A good rule of thumb is to vary your human models if you use them and always use the equal opportunity logo.

Some examples are:

  • Advertising only in English media when other language-based media is available, and
  • Advertising in only select geographic areas, and
  • Using human models in a way that might indicate a preference for a particular race, gender or lifestyle, and
  • Using the equal opportunity slogan or logo only in select advertisements

Finally, in the words you use to describe the housing or potential residents must be chosen with care. Here are samples of the protected classes:

  • Race: Avoid anything that might be show a discriminatory preference or limitation based on race, color, or national origin. Don’t use such terms to describe the neighbors or neighborhood, either.
  • Religion: Advertisements should not contain an explicit reference to religion. Advertisements containing the name of an entity with a religious reference (i.e., St. Mary’s Catholic Home), or those which contain a religious symbol standing alone, may indicate a religious preference. In these cases, it’s acceptable if a disclaimer is included (such as “This home does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, handicap or familial status”).
  • Sex: Ads should not use any terms which would indicate a preference for sex, gender, sexual orientation, or person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. Terms like mother-in-law suite, family room, or master suite are commonly used expressions to describe architectural features and are thus acceptable.
  • Handicap: Avoid indications of discrimination based on handicap or disability (i.e., no wheelchairs). Advertisements containing descriptions of properties (second story floor walkup, walk-in closets) or neighborhoods (walk to schools) are acceptable. Ads describing the conduct required of residents (non-smoking) are also acceptable.
  • Familial status: Ads may not contain limits on the number or ages of children or indicate a preference for adults, couples or singles.