Response to question on housing advertisement

One of our readers responded to our Facebook Trivia post with a question about housing advertisement:

“Does that mean an ad for “Roommate wanted, female only” violates the law?”

As noted previously, the federal and Virginia fair housing laws protect people from discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (gender), handicap (disability), and familial status (presence of persons under the age of 18).  Virginia state law also covers elderliness (defined as 55 years old and over).  These characteristics are commonly called “protected classes.”  The fair housing laws apply to most housing transactions (rental, sales, financing, insurance, zoning, or other housing services), but there are some exemptions to certain portions of the fair housing laws for smaller housing providers and other limited types of housing.  Typically, persons seeking roommates/housemates are exempt from significant portions of the fair housing laws, but they are still covered by the portions of the fair housing laws which regulate advertising.

The advertising provisions of the fair housing laws make it unlawful to

“make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on these protected classes” (again, elderliness is a Virginia-specific protected class).

For example, in most circumstances a person seeking a roommate or housemate could refuse to rent to someone just because of a protected class.  This is an exemption allowed for smaller housing providers.  However, that person could not post an ad identifying that intention or preference to discriminate.

All kinds of advertising are covered by the fair housing laws, whether an online or newspaper advertisement, a flyer or posted sign.  The advertising regulation includes both written advertisements and verbal statements.  These laws were initially put in place in 1968, yet there continues to be confusion due to the growth of the internet as an online marketplace for advertisements of housing.

There is a very limited exemption to the advertising regulations for shared housing situations where residents would be sharing a bathroom, kitchen, or other common area.  In these situations, an advertisement may express a preference based upon gender (sex) only.  However, the expressed preference must be for the same gender.  For instance, advertising “female seeking female” or “male seeking male” would be allowed if there is shared living.  An advertisement noting “male seeking female” or “female seeking male” may not be lawful because the shared living exemption exists for privacy and modesty purposes when people reside together.  If there is no shared living, then gender should not be referenced at all.

The only other exceptions in advertising relate to housing for older persons or housing operated by private clubs or religious organizations.

In summary, you may reference your gender or the gender you are seeking if there are going to be shared living areas and you are expressing a preference for a same-gender roommate.  However, you may only reference gender.  Do not reference your own or your potential roommate/housemate’s religion, race, color, or any other protected class.  A good rule is to describe the property, not the people.

For more information, please refer to HOME’s Fact Sheet on Advertising for Roommates or Housemates.

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