Seven landlords in the Washington, D.C. area are now facing a lawsuit over online rental ads they placed on Facebook.
The social media platform earlier was sued by housing advocates over allegations it enabled race, gender and family discrimination by allowing landlords to target or exclude specific interest groups who had access to the ads. In a settlement, Facebook agreed to disable many of those targeting tools and to warn landlords about the risk of discrimination. HUD then filed a separate lawsuit which has yet to be resolved.
The Washington, D.C. case stands out because it is the first known lawsuit that targets the landlords who placed the ads rather than Facebook. The victims, which include a prospective tenant over the age of 45, are claiming age discrimination after landlords paid for advertisements that were intended only for renters between 22-45 years old.
One victim said she searched for an apartment on Facebook but did not see the landlords’ ads. Had she seen them, she says, she would have clicked through and pursued vacancies. According to attorneys for the victims, the Facebook algorithm focuses advertisements on the youngest end of that age spectrum, so a 22-year-old is far more likely to see the ad than someone in their 40s.
Individuals who saw the ads also would see a stated preference for younger tenants, which could have had an impact on an older tenant’s willingness to apply for a vacancy.
This case is being brought under local anti-discrimination statutes. Age is not expressly protected under the Fair Housing Act, but claims have been filed under the FHA when age was a factor in family discrimination. Simply by disallowing an entire population, anyone over the age of 50, for instance, a landlord is by default excluding applicants based on other factors such as family status, disability, or race. The current rules for “disparate treatment” under the FHA may apply to targeted rental ads.
Many states have enacted their own anti-discrimination statutes that deal specifically with age discrimination in housing, and violations of these statutes carry penalties similar to those in the Fair Housing Act. Discriminatory conduct might occur by excluding older prospects from viewing ads, as well as touting a property as “young”, “modern”, or suited only for “professionals”.
As a practical matter, it is not in a landlord’s best interest to focus ads on a specific demographic. Younger renters present no advantage over more established renters when it comes to the profitability of rental housing.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.