Picture this: "Sunny bachelor apartment. Great for students, singles. Quiet neighborhood near biking and jogging trails. Walking distance to churches, synagogues, shopping."
Now picture a horrendously expensive lawsuit. Because that's what you could wind up facing if you wrote--or published--that real estate advertisement in California.
The Fair Housing Act, created by Congress in 1968 and amended in 1988, specifically prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin." Any landlord who violates the law can be sued--as can the newspapers that publish the offensive ads. Lawsuits can be brought by an individual plaintiff or an agency such as a fair housing council. The law applies to newspapers that publish the ads as well as the advertisers who create them.
The fictitious ad above doesn't quite hit all the law's hot buttons, but a close read reveals that it could send an unfriendly message to those who:
--Are not male ("bachelor apartment").
--May be married or have children (again the word \o7 bachelor,\f7 plus, specifying "students" or "singles" could discriminate against married people or families and "quiet neighborhood" has a further no-kids connotation).
--Are disabled (mentioning "jogging and biking trails" suggests that those with handicaps are unwelcome, as does use of the term \o7 walking distance\f7 ).
--May not be observant Christians or Jews (mentioning "churches" and "synagogues" might be interpreted as screening out members of other religions or those who do not attend services regularly).
If you think any of that sounds far-fetched, know this: Thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees have been paid over ads that were much less egregious examples of housing bias.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently issued a memo clarifying and relaxing some of the more stringent interpretations of the federal regulations. But these changes have no effect so far in California, which has its own, much stricter rules governing real estate ads.
Three years ago, after the words \o7 adults preferred\f7 appeared in the classified section of his Montebello-based newspaper chain, Ric Trent's life turned upside-down.
He was sued by the San Gabriel Fair Housing Council and the resulting fines and legal fees forced him to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, ultimately closing the doors on the 40-year-old Northeast Community Newspapers chain.
While Trent acknowledged that letting the phrase slip through put him in violation of the law, he insists that the legal action was inappropriate and ultimately hurt his readers--90% of whom are minority. "We printed critical information in Spanish," he said bitterly. "More critical than the nuances of the Fair Housing Law. We wrote about what was happening in the schools and how to become citizens."
Trent is now publisher of Wave Community Newspapers, a 31-newspaper chain that takes up where Northeast left off. But he says he's still paying off thousands of dollars in legal bills.
Trent said he has no problem with the law's fairness provisions, but as a newspaper publisher, "What I object to is the absolutely anti-constitutional aspect of killing the messenger."
According to fair housing advocates, there is nothing anti-constitutional about the law. In fact, just the opposite. "If a person doesn't have the choice of where they're going to live," said Linda Nolan, assistant deputy director of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, "they're denied a basic civil right. People need to believe they have those choices."
Selecting advertising language carefully is one way of making sure that people feel they have choices, said Diana Bruno, executive director of the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council in Panorama City.
Certain terms that used to be common in real estate ads are now off-limits, she explained, because they can be "discouraging" to prospective buyers or renters who might interpret the ad as saying that they are not welcome in a given neighborhood. "A term like \o7 exclusive \f7 can sound like an income barrier," Bruno said. "People should have the option to see for ourselves."
According to Bruno and other fair housing authorities, one basic guideline for staying within the letter and spirit of the law is to advertise the property with no preconceived notion of who the tenant or buyer might be. "You just present the facts in terms of your property, its amenities, price and location," she said.
That sounds simple enough. But even the law's most ardent advocates admit that there is confusion about what's OK and what is not.