Opening Acts: March 27, 2018

Fair Housing Lawsuit Filed Against Facebook


Today, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the Miami-based Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE), and the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio (FHCGSA) filed a fair housing lawsuit in federal court in New York City against Facebook, Inc. The lawsuit alleges that Facebook’s advertising platform enables landlords and real estate brokers to exclude families with children, women, and other protected classes of people from receiving housing ads in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the New York City Human Rights Law.

Starting in 2016, an investigation by the news organization ProPublica revealed that Facebook’s ad platform made it possible for advertisers for a variety of goods and services, including housing, to exclude African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans from receiving ads. While Facebook has recently removed some of these options, evidence collected from recent testing investigations conducted by each of the plaintiffs found that Facebook’s advertising platform and practices continue to violate fair housing laws.

The four plaintiff organizations created non-existent realty firms and prepared dozens of housing advertisements that were submitted to Facebook for review. Facebook provided plaintiffs with specific lists of groups they could exclude from receiving the ads, including families with children, moms with children of certain ages, women and men, and other categories based on sex or familial status. These investigations also revealed that Facebook provides housing advertisers with the ability to exclude certain interest categories from receiving ads that are disability-based (such as people who are interested in disabled veterans or disabled parking permits) or national origin-based (people who are interested in English as a second language.)

“Facebook enables a real estate company or landlord to discriminate by selectively targeting housing advertisements to exclude specific populations,” said FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg. “Facebook’s platform is the virtual equivalent of posting a for-rent sign that says No Families with Young Kids or No Women, but it does so in such an insidious and stealth manner so that people have no clue they have been excluded on the basis of family status or sex.”

“Amid growing public concern in the past weeks that Facebook has mishandled users’ data, our investigation shows that Facebook also allows and even encourages its paid advertisers to discriminate using its vast trove of personal data,” said Lisa Rice, NFHA’s President and CEO. “Facebook’s use and abuse of user data for discriminatory purposes needs to stop. It is already a challenge for women, families with children, people with disabilities and other under-served groups to find housing. Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them,” Rice added.

“Facebook has known for years that its advertising platform violates civil rights laws, but it has refused to change its ways on a voluntary basis,” said Diane L. Houk, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys. “Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.

“Facebook announced this year that its new mission is to bring the world closer together, but this remains empty corporate jargon as long as Facebook discriminates in its ad platform,” said Katherine Rosenfeld, another of Plaintiffs’ attorneys. “If Facebook truly wants to bring the world closer together, it could start tomorrow by giving female-headed families with children equal access to Facebook advertisements for apartment rentals.”

The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to change Facebook’s advertising platform and practices to comply with fair housing laws, as well as damages and attorney’s fees. The plaintiffs are represented by Diane L. Houk, Katherine Rosenfeld, and David Berman of Emery Celli Brinckeroff & Abady LLP.

The mission of the FHJC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, is to eliminate housing discrimination; promote policies and programs that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities; and strengthen fair housing enforcement in the New York City region.