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Information or Bias?: Ads Set Off Fair-Housing Alarms

How would you like to buy an executive house in a quiet , desirable , sophisticated neighborhood? It’s in a tranquil setting , near a country club and in an area that’s prestigious and near churche s and temples and an elementary school .

This sure sounds good to me, but guess again. Most of these descriptive words are actually considered “cautionary” or “unacceptable” by the Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley in Panorama City. Indeed, according to federal regulations even exclusive and private are catch words that should be avoided when describing properties for sale. But as is the case with many federal regulations, nobody seems to know exactly what this means.

Granted that housing bias based on race, sex, age and family status is clearly illegal. Many people in the real estate industry are wondering, though, whether putting such terms as tranquil setting on a list of phrases to avoid really helps eradicate the scourge of discrimination.

“If you or your real estate agent advertise your property for rent or sale, you can’t discriminate,” said Diana Bruno, executive director of the local Fair Housing Council, a nonprofit group that investigates alleged housing discrimination. Terms like sophisticated or prestigious aren’t necessarily discriminatory, Bruno said, but they might be if used in a certain context. She and other anti-discrimination advocates are fighting hard to exclude a growing list of terms from real estate ads.

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Bruno is also part of a group called the Fair Housing Advertising Task Force, a local group of advocates, home builders and other business people who are working to make real estate ads more multicultural. When builders advertise new homes with photos of people, she said, “they must advertise all sorts of people--people in wheelchairs, people of color, different nationalities, etc.”

But advertising an apartment building as a “quiet professional building” is a gray area, Bruno said. That ad could be interpreted as suggesting that only professionals who have no kids are wanted. Another faux pas is advertising a home within walking distance to a church or temple. This, she said, could connote that the seller or landlord only wants a buyer or a tenant who attends church or synagogue services.

These kinds of words and terms are being increasingly edited out by classified departments at local newspapers, which “seems to me an extreme, ridiculous kind of thing,” said Steven Sokol, associate general counsel for the California Assn. of Realtors (CAR). “This is sort of like walking though mush. You can’t really put your finger on all the ways someone might construe a particular term.”

There is still discrimination in housing that needs to be remedied, Sokol said. As a result, “society is edging forward in trying to figure what constitutes discrimination versus information that buyers ought to be able to get access to.”

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However, the CAR doesn’t really monitor real estate ads, Sokol conceded. But CAR rules and various other rules and statutes do forbid false and misleading advertising.

“It’s all a matter of relativity,” said Steve Ellis, Los Angeles district office manager for the California Department of Real Estate. “We don’t have a specific law that says you can’t use this word or that word. You start getting into semantics and it’s pretty difficult to regulate. We don’t try and become overbearing,” he said.

“You shouldn’t discriminate. But I don’t know what’s wrong with saying a home is two blocks from the church and temple. I would think the purchaser would want to know that,” Ellis said. “In general we don’t have very specific limitations in what to put in an ad.”

Ellis said he regularly gets calls from classified advertising representatives at various local newspapers asking whether the Department of Real Estate would object to the use of certain words or phrases. Mostly, the state agency is concerned about false and misleading advertising instead of potentially offensive ads. “We hardly ever go after our licensees for their ads,” Ellis conceded.

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