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How to Avoid Discrimination in Rental Advertisements

If you don’t advertise your apartments carefully, you might face legal trouble before you even meet prospective tenants.

Unless the local market is booming, or your business attracts a steady stream of prospective tenants through word of mouth, you’ll need to advertise your available units to find new tenants. But landlords often get in trouble by advertising in a way that makes certain types of people feel less welcome. Even if your discrimination is accidental, a fair housing complaint can harm your reputation (and your wallet). Play it safe and avoid liability by understanding how fair housing laws apply to rental advertisements.

What laws apply to rental property advertisements?

Get familiar with fair housing laws to avoid discriminating against prospective tenants based on certain characteristics they have (known as “protected classes”). For example, while most landlords know that racial discrimination is against the law, many landlords are surprised to discover that refusing to rent to families with children is also illegal.

Landlords are expected to understand how fair housing laws apply to their buildings and comply with them at all times. The main source of housing discrimination law is the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which applies to landlords across the country. The FHA includes seven protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. Many states (and even some cities) have their own fair housing laws that prevent discrimination based on additional factors, such as sexual orientation or age.

Can I specify the type of tenants I want?

Every landlord has the right to seek tenants who will comply with the terms of their lease, such as paying rent on time or keeping the property in good shape. However, going beyond that to describe some ideal tenant can lead to legal trouble. For example, if you write that an apartment is “perfect for empty nesters,” then a single parent with a child would feel less welcome. This could open you up to liability for discrimination based on familial status. Although there is no official list of words and phrases to avoid, here is one helpful source of guidance, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association.

Here are examples of how landlords got into trouble for placing discriminatory advertisements:

  • A Nevada landlord ran ads seeking to rent to "1 or 2 adults.” When he refused to show apartments to a woman after learning she had children, the woman sued—and the landlord was ordered to pay $36,000 in damages and penalties.2
  • A South Carolina landlord placed ads explicitly requiring that applicants have “no children,” then told applicants that all tenants must be at least 21 years old. The Department of Justice sued the landlord, who agreed to settle for $25,000 in damages and penalties.3

To prevent problems, stick to promoting the features and amenities of your property—and let applicants decide if they can envision themselves living there.

Do I have to worry that everyday terms might be considered discrimination?

There are certain common terms that could be perceived to have discriminatory connotations. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued guidance to say that the use of such terms in advertising is fine. For example, "walk-in closet" and "great view" aren't a problem, even though a disability might stop a tenant from entering the closet without assistance and a visual impairment might prevent a tenant from enjoying the scenery from the window.4

Can photographs in advertisements be considered discriminatory?

Always aim for diversity and inclusion when people are depicted, or focus on selecting images that simply showcase your property. Be careful about using stock photography or even taking your own photos that paint a picture of a white, disability-free property. Although one or two photos is not necessarily representative of your property or your screening criteria, it may give the impression that minority applicants or people with disabilities are less welcome to apply.

For instance, the owners of a Maryland senior housing facility ran display ads that only featured white tenants. Black applicants sued for discrimination, complaining this discouraged minorities. The landlord settled for $106,000 and, going forward, agreed to use a diverse mix of models and train employees in fair housing.5

Finally, to protect yourself against privacy complaints, get written photo releases from any tenant appearing in ads (unless your lease already includes such language).

Are there rules about where I run my ads?

Posting vacancies through your social media accounts is one thing, but if you're placing ads in local newspapers or on listings websites like Craigslist, be careful about limiting the reach. Rather than targeting certain zip codes or neighborhoods, reach out by mileage in all directions to avoid making assumptions about the quality of tenants based on where they currently live. If you avoid advertising in areas that have a greater number of minorities, you may be accused of discriminating based on race or national origin.

What if my property is exempt from the Fair Housing Act?

Certain properties are exempt from the FHA, including owner-occupied buildings with no more than four apartments.6 However, the FHA’s regulations make clear that even if your property is exempt, it’s still illegal to discriminate in advertising.7 Your state and local laws may include similar requirements. Finally, be aware that fair housing considerations apply not only to print ads but to online listings and even social media postings.

Should I include a fair housing logo or statement in my advertisements?

It is always a good idea to include the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) logo and a statement of nondiscrimination in your advertisements when practical. The FHA does not require this, but it is a smart way to communicate to applicants up front that you are mindful of their rights and your responsibilities when it comes to discrimination.

In addition, if you must defend yourself against a fair housing complaint, the fact that you incorporate the logo and a statement saying you comply with fair housing laws in your ads will show a judge that you have not been operating in ignorance of the FHA. You can download the FHEO logo directly here.

[1] HUD v. Quang Dangtran, Ha Nguyen, and HQD Enterprise, LLC, FHEO No. 06-17-7384-8 (charge filed June 25, 2019)

[2] U.S. v. Brison, Case 3:15-cv-00359-HDM-VPC (D. Nev. 2016)

[3] U.S. v. Altman, Case 2:II-cv-2537-RMG (2012)

[4] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Guidance Regarding Advertisements Under §804(c) of the Fair Housing Act (January 9, 1995)

[5] "Senior housing bias is alleged," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sep. 25, 2009)

[6] 42 U.S.C. § 3603(b), § 3607

[7] 24 CFR § 100.10(c)

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.