Nowadays, there are so many steps that go into advertising a rental unit that landlords sometimes forget their basic legal responsibilities.

One of these is making sure that you follow the advertising guidelines set by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The gist of these guidelines is that you can’t use discriminatory language or reasoning when advertising or renting a unit as everyone should be provided with an equal housing opportunity. But what does that mean in practice? And what happens if you accidentally violate these guidelines or create illegal advertising?

This article was designed to answer those questions and any others you may have. Keep reading to learn:

  • What HUD-compliant advertising looks like (using human models)
  • Why it’s so important to follow these guidelines
  • Tips for avoiding HUD fines
  • And other important details about discriminatory real estate advertising 

What is discriminatory advertising?

It wasn't that long ago that U.S. citizens were regularly denied accommodation because of discrimination based on their religion, skin color, legal status or national origin, and other characteristics. This practice only became illegal when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.

Today, landlords whether they own four or fewer units or an enterprise of multifamily housing, have to follow the tenants of the Fair Housing Act not just when making rental decisions but also when advertising their units online, in print media, and in other publications. Otherwise, they become guilty of a crime known as discriminatory advertising, which can lead to hefty fines.

Discriminatory advertisements can encompass a wide variety of actions, including:

  • Using clear language restricting applicants of certain races, genders, age groups, or members of other protected classes
  • Only making advertisements available in one language in multi-lingual communities
  • Using models of one ethnic group in online advertisements
  • Using suggestive language that implies discrimination

What happens if you commit discriminatory advertising?

If you violate HUD’s guidelines and commit discriminatory advertising, a few things can happen.

First, you may be legally required to rent the unit in question to the person who sued you for discriminatory rental practices. But the person may no longer wish to live on the property after experiencing discrimination.

What’s more likely to happen is that you will be required to pay damages to the person who successfully sued you for discriminatory advertising. Those may include:

  • Pain and suffering
  • The cost of renting a hotel or other temporary housing
  • Attorney’s fees
  • Any other charges stemming from the discriminatory incident

The bottom line is that you’re likely going to have to pay a fair amount of money if found guilty.

An overview of HUD advertising guidelines

FHA protections

Now that we know what housing discrimination in advertising looks like generally, let’s get more specific about HUD’s advertising guidelines.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits any publishing of advertisements that show a preference, limitation, or discrimination on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Familial status (such as having children)
  • National Origin

This is the basic rule of thumb when it comes to HUD-compliant advertising: you have to make sure that members of all of these classes have equal access to your rental units, assuming they have similar financial profiles.

Types of HUD advertising violations

There are more ways to violate HUD advertising guidelines and commit discriminatory housing advertising than you might expect. 

Here are three categories of violations to watch out for when compiling your ads.

Explicit violations

Explicit violations used to be extremely common before the Fair Housing Act was created.

These encompass the use of any kind of direct language that clearly states members of a certain class are not welcome to apply based on familial status or national origin, or any of the above-mentioned characteristics.

For example, a violation may use phrasing like:

  • “White housing”
  • “Jewish home” (or any religious preference)
  • “No children allowed”
  • “Men’s housing only”

It’s rare to see these kinds of violations nowadays. Although some landlords do still describe their buildings as children-free. You’re more likely to inadvertently violate HUD guidelines in one of the following two ways.

Violations by omission

Violations by omission are the easiest to make without realizing you’ve done so.

They include any failure to make your rental units equally available to members of different classes in the same income range.

For example, a violation by omission may look like this:

  • Failing to make advertisements available in Spanish, even though you live in a multi-lingual community
  • Advertising only in select geographic areas, such as only placing your ads in neighborhoods that are predominantly home to a single ethnic group
  • Only using the equal opportunity housing logo in some of your advertisements

With this class of violation, you typically have to show a pattern of offense to face fines. For example, not making any of your ads available in Spanish may be a violation. But failing to translate one or two ads may not be one.

Implicit violations

Implicit violations are those that occur without the use of explicit discriminatory language.

For example, you can be guilty of an implicit violation of HUD advertising guidelines by:

  • Only showing advertisements featuring a certain ethnic group
  • Using coded language that shows a clear preference for members of certain religious groups
  • Excessively highlighting features that may make handicapped residents less likely to apply

The point of this category is that HUD doesn’t want landlords to try and get around the fair housing guidelines by using coded language and practices instead of being explicit. So these can be just as severe from a legal standpoint as explicit discrimination.

5 tips for avoiding HUD fines

We’ve covered what you can’t do under HUD advertising guidelines. Now let’s look at some proactive steps you can take to avoid fines.

Here are five tips you can use to make sure you avoid HUD advertising fines while marketing your properties.

Always include the fair housing logo and information in your ads

HUD recommends that you list the fair housing logo on all of your advertisements. This is a clear sign that shows you know the guidelines and are taking them seriously.

It’s also a good idea to include a link to HUD’s website in your ads so that applicants can review the guidelines themselves if they feel the need to. You can even use language like “HUD home” or “HUD property” to be safe.

Including this information in your ads won’t save you from an explicit discriminatory advertising violation. But it can work in your favor in other cases by acting as an example of your commitment to HUD-compliant principles.

Avoid any kind of limiting language

As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid any word choices that highlight a specific group of people.

There shouldn’t be a need to include the names of races, religious groups, genders, or age categories in your ads. Even if you try to do the right thing by listing all of the groups who can apply to your property, you may inadvertently leave one off and face a violation for it.

That’s why it’s best to avoid this kind of language altogether. Leave limiting word choices off your advertisements, and you’ll do a lot to keep yourself protected from HUD-related fines.

Know your state and local guidelines

It’s also important to know that your state and locality can set their own discriminatory advertising guidelines.

These can’t contradict HUD’s guidelines. But they can add additional obligations to your advertisements as a landlord.

For example, in California, you also aren’t allowed to discriminate against a potential tenant on the basis of how they earn a living or their sexual orientation. You’ll need to know what additional responsibilities exist in your jurisdiction to avoid fines related to discriminatory advertising completely.

Advertise in diverse geographic areas

It’s also a good idea to get into the practice of advertising across diverse neighborhoods and communities.

For example, if your city has known ethnic concentration in certain areas, then try to advertise your units equally in each of those areas. Doing so will help you avoid any potential discriminatory advertisement placement patterns emerging.

Another thing to note in relation to this is that diverse ad placement can also extend to online platforms.

For example, if you only advertise your apartments on platforms that are frequented by members of a certain religious group, that may constitute a discriminatory practice. It’s best to market your vacancies across multiple general-purpose rental sites for this reason.

Know if you need to translate your ads

Not every landlord may be required to translate their ads. But you should be clear about whether you need to or not.

The general rule of thumb is that if you live in a community with any sizeable portion of non-English speakers, you should make your ads available in that language just to be safe.

This is especially important if you use print advertising since online platforms like Zillow and tend to offer integrated translation tools already.

Stay in Lasting Compliance with DoorLoop

As a landlord, your compliance requirements don’t end once you rent the unit. You’ll have to remain organized, accessible, and communicative throughout your leases to ensure no discriminatory issues arise.

DoorLoop can help with that. Our property management software is an all-in-one tool that makes it easier to oversee every aspect of your real estate portfolio – from online payments and maintenance to simplified tenant communication.

But don’t take our word for it. Sign up for a free demo of DoorLoop today to experience the value it provides for yourself.

Schedule a free demo of DoorLoop

David is the co-founder & CMO of DoorLoop, a best-selling author, legal CLE speaker, and real estate investor. When he's not hanging with his three children, he's writing articles here!

Legal Disclaimer

The information on this website is from public sources, for informational purposes only and not intended for legal or accounting advice. DoorLoop does not guarantee its accuracy and is not liable for any damages or inaccuracies.