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When it Comes to Fair Housing, What Can You Say?

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Some myths take on a life of their own. Not only do they refuse to die, but also they grow and expand. Recently, it has come to our attention that this seems to be true of what we might call the real estate

myth of prohibited language. Like most myths, it began in a truth. The truth was, and is, that Section 804(c) of the Fair Housing Act "prohibits the making, printing, and publishing of advertisements which

state a preference, limitation or discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin." The prohibition applies both to publishers, such as newspapers and Internet sites, and to individuals and entities who place real estate advertisements.

What is the myth? It is the belief that the Fair Housing Act prohibits the use of any words or phrases that could conceivably offend someone or that could in any way, shape, or form suggest that the style or configuration of a residence or dwelling unit might be derived from or suitable for one type of living arrangement rather than another. Thus, for example, according to the myth, the phrase "family room" ought not to appear in an advertisement describing a residence, because it is possible that such a phrase might suggest a preference for one type of life style rather than another.

It has been almost twenty years since the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a memorandum, HUD Guidance Regarding Advertisements Under Section 804(c) of the Fair Housing Act, which was designed to put the myth to rest. Alas, the myth seems to have had greater staying power. While the memorandum is still official HUD policy, many people in the real estate community -- including those who police the MLS -- seem to be oblivious to it. Fortunately, the memo is readily available as an appendix in the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) publication, Fair Housing Handbook.

The memorandum addresses wording issues as they arise with respect to the various (seven) protected classes under the Fair Housing Act. What is said will no doubt come as a surprise to some. And a relief to others. Some samples:

1. Race, color, or national origin: "Use of words describing the housing, the current or potential residents or the neighbors or neighborhood in racial or ethnic terms (i.e., white family home, no Irish) will create liability under this section. However, advertisements which are facially [apparently] neutral will not create liability. Thus, complaints over use of phrases such as master bedroom, rare find, or desirable neighborhood should not be filed."

2. Religion: "Advertisements should not contain an explicit preference, limitation or discrimination on account of religion (i.e. no Jews, Christian home)… Advertisements containing descriptions of properties (apartment complex with chapel), or services (kosher meals available) do not on their face state a preference for persons likely to make use of those facilities, and are not violations of the Act."

3. Sex: "… Use of the term master bedroom does not constitute a violation of either the sex discrimination provisions or the race discrimination provisions. Terms such as "mother-in-law suite" and "bachelor apartment" are commonly used as physical descriptions of housing units and do not violate the Act."

4. Handicap: "…Advertisements containing descriptions of properties (great view, fourth floor walkup, walk-in closets), services or facilities (jogging trails) or neighborhoods (walk to bus stop) do not violate the Act…"

5. Familial status: "…Advertisements describing the properties (two bedroom, cozy, family room), services and facilities (no bicycles allowed) or neighborhoods (quiet streets) are not facially discriminatory and do not violate the Act."

So there you have it. Straight from your government. Something sensible. Savor it and pass the word. Myth busters, unite.

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