HUD accuses Facebook of housing discrimination

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facebook-dislike-thumb.jpgThe U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last week that it has filed a civil complaint against Facebook, Inc. alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act as a result of Facebook’s ad-targeting system. Twitter, Inc. and Google have been notified that their similar practices are under scrutiny.

Facebook’s ad-targeting system allows advertisers the ability to direct messages to target audiences with precision.  HUD charges this system has allowed real estate companies to unlawfully discriminate on the basis of race, nationality, religion, color familial status, sex and disability.

The complaint alleges Facebook is guilty of “encouraging, enabling and causing” unlawful discrimination when it allows advertisers to exclude users by certain characteristics, for example, whether they are interested in Hispanic culture and food, whether they are parents and whether they are non-citizens or non-Christians. Some ads are only shown to women. Other ads may exclude neighborhoods or geographic areas like ZIP codes. Secretary of HUD Ben Carson said using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in that person’s face.

HUD alleges Facebook mines users’ extensive personal data and uses characteristics protected by law to determine who can view housing ads.

This is not the first time Facebook has been in trouble for ad-targeting. An earlier investigation by ProPublica found the advertising practices acted to exclude African American, Latinos and Asian Americans. HUD had filed an earlier complaint last August alleging ethnic groups were excluded from viewing some ads. Facebook took action by removing 5,000 ad target options.

The ACLU was not happy with that result and filed a lawsuit. That lawsuit was settled recently with Facebook announcing substantial changes to its platform including withholding a wide array of demographic information often used as indicators of race. Facebook also agreed to create a tool that would allow users to search for housing ads whether or not the ads could be viewed in individual news feeds.

HUD was apparently dissatisfied with the settlement as not going far enough to remedy housing discrimination and responded with the current complaint.

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SC Court of Appeals Upholds Developer’s Plan for Tailgate Condo Project

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The SPUR avoids kiddie condo status.

In a case decided in the midst of a wretched Carolina football season, the South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a restriction against rentals to students in a condominium project that was clearly built to accommodate terrific tailgate parties.

williams brice condoLalla v. The SPUR at Williams Brice Owners Association, Inc.* involved a three bedroom condominium in the shadow of Williams Brice stadium purchased in 2007 for $470,000. Mr. and Mrs. Lalla purchased the condo intending to enjoy football games and to allow their daughter and two roommates to live there during college.  However, the great market decline beginning in 2008 spoiled their plans.

The Master Deed contained a prohibition against renting to any student enrolled in a two or four year college. But owners could allow their children or grandchildren to reside in or rent a unit along with rent-paying roommates.

When the market declined, the value of the condominium substantially decreased in value, and the Lallas unsuccessfully attempted to sell it. At the time of the appellate court hearing in 2014, the condo had been on the market for four years.

During the summer of 2010, the Lallas notified the owners’ association of their decision to rent to college students and began to do so. In June of 2010, the board of the association met and considered a comment card from a unit owner complaining that the association was allowing the project to turn into a dormitory.  Following this meeting, the board sent out a notice to each owner indicating the restrictions would be enforced and giving owners until May of 2011 to terminate any violating leases.

When the rules were not followed by Mr. and Mrs. Lalla, the association filed a declaratory judgment action seeking interpretation and enforcement of the master deed. The Lallas answered and counterclaimed, seeking a ruling that the restrictions were null and void because of changed circumstances. The association prevailed in the circuit court, and the Lallas appealed, asserting that the restrictions discriminated against a specific class of individuals (college students) and are unreasonable because the violation caused no damage to other property owners.

football tailgateThe discrimination argument failed because ”college students have not faced a long history of discrimination, are not an insular minority, and have not been classified according to an immutable trait acquired at birth.” In other words “college students” is not an inherently suspect class. The purpose of the restriction, to insure the comfort and safety of the residents and to protect the investment of the property owners by minimizing the risk of creating a dormitory-like atmosphere, was held to be rational.

The Court of Appeals also held that the economic change in circumstances failed to support the termination of the restriction because the declining market had no effect on the association’s need to minimize the risk that the project might develop a dormitory-like atmosphere.

South Carolina dirt lawyers like to see restrictive covenants enforced as written, so this case matches our world view.  And the Carolina fans among us dream of an outstanding replacement for Steve Spurrier so those terrific tailgate parties can resume!