FAIR HOUSING AD FOLLY

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The problem in real estate advertising of late has been words, and it's driving just about everyone involved in the $600 million-plus field batty.

The federal Fair Housing Act, revised in 1988, is meant to keep real estate ad copy free of language that suggests particular groups of renters or buyers are unwelcome customers. Yet an orgy of nitpicking is turning compliance with this law into a major headache.

Well-meaning advertisers and the media (held responsible for what appears in their pages) can rightfully ask if this law is turning from reasonable regulation into something arbitrary and unpredictable.

For example, mention of location near a parish in an ad is illegal; ditto references to synagogues. "Near houses of worship" understandably is the way to go. So that's easy. But now advertisers, agencies and the media in a number of states are struggling to understand that such phrases as "sports enthusiasts" and "walk-in closet" might seem to exclude the handicapped, that "spectacular view" suggests the vision-impaired need not apply, and even that "master bedroom" carries connotations of slavery.

Thankfully, some noted civil rights leaders are on record as saying many of these new complaints about the wording in some real estate ads trivialize the Fair Housing Act's intent and detract from addressing the deeper problem of housing discrimination.

Yet now we have the Arizona attorney general making it a mission of the National Association of Attorneys General to prosecute based upon a list of "more than 200 words and phrases" as defined in his state.

Does debate over phrases like "nanny's room" (one from his book) further the reasonable goal of ending ads that contribute to housing discrimination? We fail to see how.

Advertisers and media will comply with the law, if they understand what the law wants. But if words in ad copy are given twisted, arbitrary and unexpected meanings, that's not good law; that's censorship, and state attorneys general need to see the difference.

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