Web site operators and online advertisers should be held no less accountable than their print-world counterparts for illegal discrimination in for-sale and for-rent housing advertisements. The Web may be a more open and innovative platform than print media ever has been, but openness, innovation and even relative novelty are no excuse for failure to comply with federal and state fair housing laws that protect home buyers and renters.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against prospective renters or home buyers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, family status or national origin. Many states also have laws on their books that ban discrimination on the basis of the same and other protected classes. Yet illegal discrimination in housing still occurs far too often to be accidental or inadvertent.

Take an Inman News survey about housing discrimination.

One success story in the fight against housing discrimination has been newspapers’ efforts to screen for-sale and for-rent housing advertisements prior to publication and to reject insertions that contain blatant or even subtle discriminatory preferences in housing.

But sadly it seems such screening efforts haven’t been consistently imported from newspapers to Web sites that allow property-owner corporations and individual homeowners to advertise housing for sale or rent.

A fair housing organization in Boston last week accused several local real estate companies of illegal discrimination in advertising on their Web sites. The organization’s lawsuit against the realty companies cited such wording as “professionals only” and “no undergrads please!” among other statements, as potentially discriminatory against certain protected classes, according to news reports.

Whether those particular statements are indeed illegal is a matter for the court to decide. But either way, the lawsuit itself should be a fair warning to Web site operators that fair housing laws apply even to what was once called the Wild Wild Web.

An informal search of rental Web sites not named in the Boston lawsuit turned up such worrisome comments as “Single Person Only,” “Ideal for foreign students!” “Walk to…church,” “Ideal for the Quiet, Honest, Loving individual or couple,” “Looking for professional single or couple” and even this gem: “great for that single guy or girl! we’re a happy gay complex and would love to have another sister join in on the fun! str8 guys and gals can apply too!” One advertisement declined to specify unwelcome applicants, but instead stated: “good people preferred.”

Whether those particular advertisements are illegal would be up to a housing agency enforcement officer or judge to determine. But the mere presence of so many potentially discriminatory advertisements hints at the large size of the problem and the extent to which Web site operators have turned a blind eye to any responsibility for fair housing laws.

That’s simply not acceptable.

The defense that Web site operators wouldn’t be responsible for the content of advertising they publish is no defense at all. It is illegal in the United States “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”

It’s not as if these laws and rules are all that difficult to obtain or understand. In fact, the federal housing agency has published a link to the fair housing act and a memorandum on the subject of advertising on its Web site.

***

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