HUD Files Fair Housing Case Against Facebook

John Jordan | August 2018

Facebook Founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced on Friday it had filed a formal civil complaint against Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing landlords and home sellers to use its advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination.

HUD officials also reported on Friday that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York had filed a statement of interest, joined in by HUD, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on behalf of a number of private litigants challenging Facebook’s advertising platform. In March 2018, the National Fair Housing Alliance and three of its member organizations filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Inc. in federal court in New York City, alleging that Facebook’s advertising platform enables landlords and real estate brokers to exclude families with children, women, and other protected classes of people from receiving housing ads.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing transactions including print and online advertisement on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status.

HUD in its suit filed last week claims Facebook enables advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads based upon the recipient’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip code. Facebook then invites advertisers to express what it termed as “unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of ‘targeted advertising.’”

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” said 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.”

Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said in response to the HUD Fair Housing complaint in a report in the New York Times, “Over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”

HUD’s complaint alleges Facebook’s platform violates the Fair Housing Act. It enables advertisers to, among other things:

• display housing ads either only to men or women;

• not show ads to Facebook users interested in an “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility” or “deaf culture;”

• not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “child care” or “parenting,” or show ads only to users with children above a specified age;

• to display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion or tenet, such as the “Christian Church,” “Sikhism,” “Hinduism,” or the “Bible.”
not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “Latin America,” “Canada,” “Southeast Asia,” “China,” “Honduras,” or “Somalia;” and

• draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.

HUD also stated that Facebook promotes its advertising targeting platform for housing purposes with “success stories” for finding “the perfect homeowners,” “reaching home buyers,” “attracting renters” and “personalizing property ads.”

The National Association of Realtors praised HUD for its decision to target online housing discrimination.

National Association of Realtors President Elizabeth Mendenhall, a sixth-generation Realtor from Columbia, MI and CEO of RE/MAX Boone Realty, said in a prepared statement:“In 2018, as America recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the National Association of Realtors strongly supports a housing market free from all types of discrimination. However, as various online tools and platforms continue to transform the real estate industry in the 21st Century, our understanding of how this law is enforced and applied must continue to evolve as well. Realtors commend the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Ben Carson for taking decisive action to defend fair housing laws, and for working to ensure its intended consumer protections extend to wherever real estate is marketed.”

 

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth