Defining the Customer Profile and Identifying Target Markets

Marketing and the Fair Housing Act

While segmenting a target market can be an effective tool, it is important to understand how to do so without discriminating against some group of people and without violating the Fair Housing Act. The marketing, sale and leasing of housing is regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the authority of the Fair Housing Act. Click here to visit the official HUD website on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Everyone involved in marketing and sales should be familiar with the law. Fair Housing Act provisions make it unlawful to discriminate in the sale, rental and financing of housing, and in the provision of brokerage and appraisal services, because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin – the “protected classes” defined in the act.

Target marketing should never be used for the purpose of excluding anyone from knowing about and having access to a home purchase. Housing marketers should have an array of target markets so no protected class is singled out without a complementary marketing campaign for others. You will also probably want to include a “general public” market so you can present a generic message with wide public exposure to make sure no one is excluded from the opportunity, and in places where it does not make sense to segment, such as your office.

To ensure that your marketing campaign does not violate the rights of a protected class, you should consult the Part 109 Fair Housing Advertising document and your local fair housing enforcement agency. (To find your local agency, web-search the name of your community and “fair housing enforcement.”)

Please note that in addition to requirements under the federal Fair Housing Act, some states and localities have civil rights laws that you need to understand and comply with. For example, additional protected classes may  be designated based on characteristics such as weight, height, sexual orientation or “lawful source of income.” Check with your local government about relevant provisions of your local and state laws.

What Housing Is Covered?

The Fair Housing Act covers most housing. In some circumstances, the act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members. Single-family or owner-occupied housing exemptions do not apply to discriminatory advertising (see below).

What Is Prohibited?

In the Sale and Rental of Housing: No one may take any of the following actions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap:

  • Refuse to rent or sell housing
  • Refuse to negotiate for housing
  • Make housing unavailable
  • Deny a dwelling
  • Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling
  • Provide different housing services or facilities
  • Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale or rental
  • For profit, persuade owners to sell or rent (blockbusting)
  • Deny anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing

In Mortgage Lending: No one may take any of the following actions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap (disability):

  • Refuse to make a mortgage loan
  • Refuse to provide information regarding loans
  • Impose different terms or conditions on a loan, such as different interest rates, points or fees
  • Discriminate in appraising property
  • Refuse to purchase a loan
  • Set different terms or conditions for purchasing a loan

In Addition: It is illegal for anyone to:

  • Threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right
  • Advertise or make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap. This prohibition against discriminatory advertising applies to single-family and owner-occupied housing that is otherwise exempt from the Fair Housing Act.

Examples:

  • You cannot place the following in an ad: “great home for elderly, single person.” This would be discrimination on the basis of age and familial status. This also means you cannot place an ad that says “great home for young families with children.”
  • Do not use words describing the housing, the current or potential residents, or the neighbors or neighborhood in racial or ethnic terms (e.g., “historic Polish neighborhood” or “great neighborhood for people who are proud of their African-American heritage”).
  • Ads should not contain an explicit preference, limitation or discrimination on account of religion (e.g., “Christian community”).
  • Ads should not contain explicit exclusions, limitations or other indications of discrimination based on handicap (e.g., “no wheelchairs”). Ads containing descriptions of accessibility features are OK (“wheelchair ramp”).

Be sure your team is trained on the Fair Housing Act so they do not violate it when talking with potential buyers. For instance, none of these things would be legal to say:

“There’s a lot of traffic. It isn’t safe for kids.”
“This is affordable housing, it would be too expensive to make it accessible.”
“We only take English-speaking people.”
“We can’t give you a mortgage if you are on maternity leave.”
“This home would be great for a single person.”
“You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable living in this neighborhood.”
“This is a Christian development.”
“We built these homes for real families – you know, with kids.”

Additional Protection for People with Disabilities

The Fair Housing Act protections cover anyone who:

  • Has a physical or mental disability (including hearing, mobility and visual impairments; chronic alcoholism; chronic mental illness; AIDS; AIDS Related Complex; and mental retardation) that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Has a record of such a disability 
  • Is regarded as having such a disability

The most reliable way to ensure that your marketing does not violate the Fair Housing Act is to review your plan with your local fair housing enforcement agency. You will also find resources there to assist in training your team and everyone else at your organization.