HUD Files Housing Discrimination Complaint Against Facebook

HUD recently filed a formal complaint against Facebook, accusing the company of violating the federal fair housing law by allowing landlords and home sellers to use its advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination.

Federal fair housing law prohibits discrimination in housing transactions, including print and online advertisements, on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status. HUD’s Secretary-initiated complaint follows the Department’s investigation into Facebook’s advertising platform, which includes targeting tools that enable advertisers to filter prospective tenants or homebuyers based on these protected classes.

In its complaint, HUD alleges that 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, or Zip code. According to HUD, Facebook then invites advertisers to express unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of “targeted advertising.”

For example, HUD’s complaint alleges Facebook’s platform 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—or 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.”
  • Draw a red line around Zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific Zip codes.

Allegedly, 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.”

In separate proceedings, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has filed a statement of interest in federal court on behalf of a number of private litigants challenging Facebook’s advertising platform.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “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.”

Though these actions have been taken against Facebook, you could face a fair housing complaint for discriminatory online advertising, including selective marketing that favors—or excludes—particular groups of people based on race, and other protected characteristics.

In a recent webinar, attorney Lynn M. Wilson discussed how some communities have run afoul of the Fair Housing Act’s ban on discriminatory advertising online—and explains how to avoid having discrimination claims arise from your online advertising. A recording of the one-hour webinar, “How to Avoid Discrimination Claims When Advertising Online,” along with related resources, are available for download here.