The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to publish discriminatory housing advertisements. This has long been applied to newspapers, which have effectively screened all discriminatory housing ads from sight. However, in 1996 Congress created a loophole when it immunized website operators from liability for the content posted to their sites by third parties. Without publisher liability, websites have no incentive to screen out discriminatory housing ads. The result is that such ads are proliferating in cyberspace.
While this situation is problematic from a fair housing standpoint, it presents a valuable opportunity. For the first time in a generation discriminatory housing advertisements are out in the open and available for analysis. This article contains a comprehensive review of discriminatory housing ads appearing on the popular website craigslist, which yields a number of interesting findings, including: (1) The vast majority of those who post discriminatory on-line advertisements for housing are placed by people seeking roommates. (2) The overwhelming majority of problematic ads discriminate on the basis of familial status. There are very few that discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or religion. (3) The few roommate ads that do mention race, ethnicity, or religion are more likely to discriminate in favor of minority groups. Thus, they appear more as expressions of individual diversity of backgrounds and beliefs than exclusionary tools of a majoritarian power structure.
This information can and should inform changes to the legislative and enforcement regime for dealing with discriminatory housing advertisements. For example, we should recognize that the roommate relationship is different from traditional rental housing, and accord roommate-seekers protection from the law â€“ protection which is currently given to small landlords (who arguably do not need it) but not co-lessees. Fair housing advocates also must address the unique problems presented by familial status as a protected category, both in terms of public awareness and acceptance of the law.