The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is reviewing complaints of Internet-based real estate postings that may violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

While there are established cases in which newspapers have been found liable for printing ads that are deemed in violation of the federal act, the department is treading in new territory as it considers the wide range of Web sites that carry real estate information.

Some Web sites are passive forums that allow users to post real estate information, for example, while other sites may play a more direct role in preparing and publishing the listings information online.

“We need to look at the actual nature of the Web site,” said Bryan Greene, director of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. “It is a relatively new area. The Web site is a very broad category of publication. We have gotten complaints against a range of Web-page publications.”

The federal act states that it is unlawful “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.”

While the federal act was established decades before the arrival of the Web, Greene said its publishing provisions extend to advertising that appears in any publication, including Internet-based publications.

“Anyone who is advertising in a publication, whether it be a poster, newspaper, or on a Web page – anyone who is submitting that ad – they have to comply,” he said. As for the sites that carry information that violates the Fair Housing Act, the department is still deciding how to handle those cases. “We will look individually at the parties and determine if they are liable and the extent to which they are liable.”

Greene added, “It’s definitely in the interest of the public for publications to make sure the advertisements that they post don’t discourage different groups from renting or buying property. Whether someone is liable or not, we always encourage someone to advertise in a non-discriminatory manner.” He said he did not have any statistics on whether a non-newspaper-related Web site that carried a property listing deemed to violate fair housing laws has ever been cited for also violating the Fair Housing Act.

Brian N. Larson, a lawyer a who represents Realtor associations and affiliated MLSs, said that though he is not a fair housing expert, “I’m still pretty comfortable suggesting that any medium or Web site that displays discriminatory advertising is likely subject to the same liability as any other. This is consistent with the public policy goal of preventing discrimination, however it may be fostered.”

Some Internet companies that maintain Web sites with real estate listings run automatic scans of real estate information to help guard against content that violates the Fair Housing Act.

Homestore, which operates home-search Web sites Realtor.com, HomeBuilder.com and RentNet.com, scans property listings at Realtor.com, said Erin Campbell, a company spokeswoman.

“Most (multiple listing services) scan base data before it is sent to us, but we also scan additional data that is submitted to Realtor.com directly by our customers or through a company feed. We will not accept any listings that do not meet criteria given to us by HUD,” she said.

The automated technology enlisted at Realtor.com and other Homestore-operate sites, while it does flag and block potentially discriminatory language, is not flawless.

One real estate agent reported that the system at first rejected a property listing that included the word “Japanese” in a description of a “lovely Japanese maple” tree, for example, and another listing because it contained the word “trash” (presumably because of the “white trash” connotation) in referring to a “trash compactor” at the home. In the first example, the agent rewrote the description as “J.Maple” to bypass the computerized censor.

Campbell said Homestore has not been contacted by HUD regarding any potential fair housing complaints or investigations.

She said the company has scanned all existing, new home and rental listing content before posting it online for several years, based on criteria supplied by HUD. Customers who disagree with a decision that has been made about potentially discriminatory language in their listings can contact a customer service representative, Campbell said.

Craigslist, which operates online community sites in major markets across the globe and carries for-sale and rental property listings posted by its users, “does not monitor listings — period,” said Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist CEO.

“With more than 6 million new free classified ads each month, and a staff of 18, it is not possible for us to do so,” he said, adding, “We do, however, provide something much more powerful and effective – a flagging system on every ad, so that users themselves can take action against any ad they find to be problematic. If enough users agree, the ad comes down automatically.

Craigslist immediately removes illegal ads when they are brought to the site managers’ attention, he said. And Craigslist posts information and links about the Fair Housing Act in its housing sections, noting that some state and local laws have a broader definition of punishable housing discrimination.

Buckmaster also said he is aware of one current Fair Housing Act investigation involving Craigslist. “We are cooperating … by removing the listings in question, asking for feedback on how to better inform our users about these regulations, and putting our attorneys at their disposal,” he said.

City Limits Weekly reported earlier this year about several landlord postings on Craigslist, stating that people with children need not apply for certain rental units. The postings prompted a housing discrimination complaint to the New York City Commission on Human Rights. The Anti-Discrimination Center of New York filed the complaints against the landlords, according to the article.

Actions by federal lawmakers have buffered Internet sites from liability for content produced by their users, Buckmaster said. “Fortunately Congress has made the determination that it would not be beneficial for society to hold Internet services such as ours liable for postings made by their users.”

Though he is not a legal expert, Buckmaster said he suspects that the bar is set higher for newspapers that publish classified ads in violation of the Federal Housing Act because “newspapers have traditionally charged a lot of money for such ads, and have approved and entered each one manually into their systems.” Online classified ads can be quickly removed from a Web site, too, he said, while “once published in a newspaper, nothing can be done about a problematic ad.”

Pegge McGuire, executive director for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, a private, nonprofit agency that promotes equal housing opportunities, said she is aware of some very recent complaints against a few online services for fair housing violations based on the sites’ postings. “Until there are some final decisions in court we don’t really know how that all plays out, but we can make some educated guesses,” she said.

She said MLSs, as an example, are “very cautious … sometimes even more restrictive than we would ever tell them they needed to be,” about publishing information that could violate fair housing laws. “The only real difference I see between an entity like an MLS and a site like Craigslist is the potential for market penetration. If it is perceived that an MLS listing has a broader audience or likelihood to impact more people with an advertising violation, there is a higher level of concern for the liability, responsibility and potential damages and penalties that would result if a complaint were filed and the advertiser did not prevail.”

Some fair housing complaints have also been filed based on Web links that were posted on a site, she added. “It seems pretty reasonable to me, if you created the link to your page, you should and would know what it said,” McGuire said. “In doing training for housing providers, I frequently caution them to try to use links to Web data that cities and counties produce, rather than more subjective sources.”

Craig Donato, CEO for Oodle, a search engine for classified ads that pulls real estate and other information from a range of sites and posts links for consumers to access those Web sites directly, said, “We rely on (those sites) to act appropriately. Should we receive notice that a site is not complying with these laws, we’d remove them from our index.”

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What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com; (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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