Risky Business: Facebook Housing Ads Under Scrutiny

by Chris on August 27, 2018

Landlords using Facebook to target the “right” renters may want to rethink that strategy in the face of growing controversy over the practice of choosing tenants based on their interests.

Last week, HUD filed a complaint accusing the social media giant of promoting discrimination by allowing landlords to choose or block certain demographic groups. The move comes while Facebook is defending a private lawsuit brought by fair housing associations alleging that its advertising platform is discriminatory.

The Fair Housing Act protects renters based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. Facebook collects information regarding user preferences and has compiled an elaborate database which Facebook in turn promotes to advertisers. That allows landlords, for instance, to choose very specific demographic groups who can view the ads while blocking others.

HUD and other fair housing agencies allege this process of targeted advertising enables landlords to control which users will apply for rentals by expressing illegal preferences. For example, landlords can:

Choose to display housing ads only to men or to women;
Block renters with disabilities by eliminating any demographic interested in “assistance dog”, “mobility scooter”, “accessibility”, or “deaf culture”;
Eliminate rental applicants with children by blocking interest in “child care” or “parenting”, or show ads only to users with children above a specific age;
Bar renters interested in a specific religion — “Sikhism”, “Hinduism” — or encourage applicants interested in “Christian Church” or “Bible”.
Choose national origin by promoting or eliminating renters interested in specific countries like “Latin America”, “Canada”, “China”,  or “Somalia”;
Discriminate against minority applicants by blocking users who live within certain zip codes.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” says Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”

Days after receiving the complaint from HUD, Facebook announced that it is removing thousands of targeting options from advertising platforms in an effort to curb discriminatory ads. These exclusions include attributes of ethnicity and religion. Facebook calls the discriminatory ads a misuse of its platform, and endeavors to educate advertisers on legitimate ways to reach renters without illegal bias.

In addition to having limited options for targeting or blocking Facebook users, landlords advertising on the platform now will be required to complete a certification process to ensure compliance with the company’s non-discrimination policy.

While scrutiny of the ads so far has been directed at Facebook, it is only a matter of time before other authorities — like state attorneys general — will take notice and pursue individual landlords. A prospective renter who discovers they’ve been blocked from a housing ad that friends or coworkers have access to undoubtedly will file a discrimination claim.

Landlords who rely on such a surgical approach to finding new renters may want to take a step back and consider the possible consequences of blocking certain users based on such controversial categories. From a business perspective, there is nothing to be gained by limiting the applicant pool in this way — and everything to lose.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.

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.

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