Advertising cannot be discriminatory. That means an ad for housing cannot indicate a preference for a particular type of person or exclude people who belong to a protected category. For example, an ad cannot state a preference for single people only or exclude children or women. Even hinting at such a preference is unlawful. It is illegal for a property owner or property management company to place a discriminatory ad and it is illegal for a newspaper or magazine to publish such an ad.
There have been two recent court cases regarding internet sites that publish housing ads. One case was against Craigslist.com
(212 KB). In that case, the court found that because Craigslist.com does not require a person placing an ad to fill out its form and does nothing with the ad that is placed, it was not liable for discriminatory ads placed on Craigslist.com. The individual placing the discriminatory ad was liable, but unlike newspapers, Craigslist.com was not. The court ruled the other way in a case against Roommates.com
(110 KB) Because Roommates.com required a person placing an ad to answer specific questions relative to membership in protected categories and because Roommates.com then matched the information with other persons with similar characteristics, the court ruled that Roommates.com had violated fair housing laws.
HUD has published a memo
(113 KB) to guide people on this issue. Craigslist also provides guidance. A simple rule to guide housing advertising is this: describe the property; not who you want to live there.
FAQ – I have found that professional couples make good tenants more often than not. I have had bad experiences with other types of people. So why can’t I advertise for a professional couple? You can make your decision on who you rent to based on many lawful criteria such as credit, rental history, employment, smoking, and pets. You can set the rent for your unit to attract people who earn a certain income. But both federal and Vermont fair housing laws forbid you to give preference to a couple over a single person or persons with children.
FAQ - What if I place an ad that says “no young children” and the newspaper accepts it. Isn’t that their mistake and not mine? In that situation, both you and the newspaper have violated fair housing laws. Each party could be liable for the violation.