Grace Hill Training Tip of the Week
Social Media – Back in the News
The topic of social media and fair housing is back in the headlines.
In March, fair housing organizations filed a lawsuit against Facebook, accusing the company of allowing real estate companies and landlords to exclude women and families with children from seeing certain housing ads. The lawsuit alleges that this behavior is discriminatory.
A few weeks ago we talked about how social media communications are often considered advertisements, and discrimination in advertising is prohibited by the Fair Housing Act. It is illegal to create, publish or distribute housing ads that discriminate, limit or deny equal access to housing because of membership in any federally protected class.
But what about looking up applicants or residents on social media? Can that be problematic from a fair housing perspective? Let’s take a look.
It may be tempting to use social media to learn more about prospective residents during the screening process. However, on social media you are likely to find out information that defines someone as a protected class, such as their religion, that they have children, or that they have a disability. This could make you more likely to deny someone housing based on those characteristics, which could make you more vulnerable to discrimination claims.
If you think what you find on social media could influence, or even appear to influence, your decision about leasing to someone, then steer clear of investigating on social media. The best thing to do is follow your standard application and qualification procedures consistently for all prospects.
If you connect with residents on social media, think carefully before acting on information you find.
Imagine you have a couple living in a one-bedroom apartment home. Your occupancy limits specify two people per bedroom. On social media, you learn that the couple is in the process of adopting twins. What should you do?
In this case, it is best to not take any action. Even making a note of this in the residents’ file could be problematic if you face a fair housing claim. It could appear as though you used the couple’s familial status in making decisions, which could violate fair housing law.
What if you come across something concerning about residents on social media, such an indication that they lied on their application or weren’t honest in an accommodation request? Consult with your supervisor and legal counsel before taking any action. If you act on information and are wrong about what you found, you may put yourself at risk for a fair housing complaint.
In this age of social media, it is important to understand that you are responsible for acting in a non-discriminatory way, no matter what form of communication you are using. You must be just as mindful of fair housing laws when sharing information and interacting with customers online as you are when sharing information and interacting in print and in person. The same rules apply.