A fair housing activist group with a proud history of filing lawsuits against multifamily developers and owner/operators that have allegedly violated the Fair Housing Act has a new target: multifamily Internet listing services (ILSs). In a report issued August 11, the Washington, D.C.-based National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) claims that loopholes in the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (which holds newspapers accountable for discriminatory ads) is allowing Internet publishers carte blanche to post discriminatory housing advertisements with relative impunity.

According to NFHA’s report , “FOR RENT: NO KIDS! How Internet Advertisements Perpetuate Discrimination,” Internet publishers are not held accountable for individual listings, and therefore, each posting alleged to be illegal must be pursued independently, a task that the activist group claims is unjustly over-cumbersome. NFHA and its member organizations—which include 220 fair housing organizations across the country—have identified more than 7,500 allegedly discriminatory advertisements and have filed more than 1,000 complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2009 alone.

“We must amend the Communications Decency Act so that Internet Publishers are held to the dame standard as newspapers under the Fair Housing Act,” NFHA president and CEO Shanna Smith says. “It is disgraceful that interactive Internet providers continue to receive a free pass to discriminate. Every time a discriminatory housing advertisement appears online, it tells the reader that it is OK to refuse to rent to a family with a child, and it turns back the progress of the Fair Housing Act.”

The specter of litigation against the multifamily ILS arena—particularly in an era of increased user-generated content in the form of videos, blogs, micro-blogging, and user comments—have many sector participants on alert.  “I think this will greatly impact how sites with user-generated content operate in the housing market, including Trulia, Craigslist, and definitely us,” says Eric Wu, co-founder of RentWiki.com, an ILS that provides user reviews of neighborhoods and apartment communities. “We all need to cover our bases so that we do not get into any legal complications moving forward.”

NFHA filed suit in July against American Classifieds—the nation's largest classified ad publisher—for allegedly publishing ads in 17 states that said children were not allowed at advertised apartment listings. The alliance and its associated organizations have also previously filed suit against multifamily developers such as JPI, Archstone, The Bozzuto Group, and Equity Residential for alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act.   

While the outcome of NFHA’s call to Congress for amendments to the Communications Decency Act remains to be seen, some major multifamily ILS players are resolute in their non-discrimination policies and screening procedures, despite the letter of the law. “We fully support efforts to eradicate discrimination in housing, including by way of appropriate regulation through the existing federal Fair Housing Act and local laws,” says Peggy Abkemeier, president of Santa Monica, Calif.-based ILS Rent.com. “As an Internet company that works to promote and create a non-discriminatory user experience, we welcome the energies of others who share this goal. In the rare instance when Rent.com receives a complaint of a discriminatory listing, our team is trained to quickly review and remove it, if appropriate."