Discriminatory Advertising Guest Editorial from Philadelphia:  CONTINUING TO ERADICATE SEGREGATION

by Clifford Boardman, Esquire, Attorney for the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia

Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia
reprinted from Spring 1996 Fair Ways

Continuing in its efforts to eradicate the segregation of families with children, the FHC has filed another eleven lawsuits in United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania. This move was prompted by the intractability of many newspapers and real estate brokers in correcting their behavior and accepting the consequences of their conduct. The Montgomery Newspapers, for example, published articles earlier in the year essentially stating that "no children" advertisements did not violate the fair housing advertising laws. Yet, Montgomery Newspapers had been charged over two years ago with advertising discrimination and, thus, has had plenty of time to read the law and understand its basic meaning.

Similarly, The Main Line Times, while resolving two charges in the last five years, published a further discriminatory advertisement last November. Also, The Journal Register Company, publisher of many of the newspapers charged with discrimination over two years ago, continues to this day to have some of its newspapers publish bigoted advertisements.

Not only do the newspapers continue publishing discriminatory ads, many charged newspapers and real estate agents have refused to sign agreements that would require them not to discriminate in the future, to obtain training in the law, to keep records of their advertisements and to pay the minimum fine for their conduct. The FHC has not accepted these refusals. The FHC is well aware that to change the behavior of entire industries, here Pennsylvania newspapers, real estate agents and apartment owners, the terms of these agreements must be met in full.

Indeed, the failure of these industries to correct the problem has been profound. Rather than confront and correct their failures, these industries sought delay and protection from the state. At the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission (PHRC), the newspapers, along with their trade group The Pennsylvania Newspapers Publishers Association, stated no fines would be paid and demanded that an advertising "arbitration board" be created to determine if advertisements are segregatory. Of course, the industries are already protected by the PHRC's and a jury's review of the meaning of their advertisements.

Further, while the industries have contended the advertising laws are ambiguous, they have never been able to establish this. In fact, most of the words they take exception to, e.g. "room with a view," "walk in closet," have never been considered violations of the law and no charges have ever been filed about such terms. The other words the industry contends are ambiguous, e.g. "ideal for retiree," or "perfect for empty nester," are not ambiguous - they are listed as violations of the law in the federal and state fair housing advertising guidelines.

Even more revealing is that every real estate agent when questioned about those latter advertisements readily admitted that he or she believed the houses or apartments would more likely be bought or rented by those without children - so why not advertise that. Yet, prejudging the market for a property based on a protected class is the definition of discrimination. Interestingly, despite mandatory fair housing education for licensure, these real estate agents have rejected this definition and plead ignorance. Unwilling to accept that they may not continue to prejudge markets for homes and apartments, the real estate and newspaper industries have taken their hopes for protection to the state legislature. This was not a difficult decision as at least one of the state representatives, Dennis Leh, is a member of a board of realtors. Representative Leh simply proposed legislation following the real estate brokers' agenda of, inter alia, an advertising board (members to be selected through a political process), the raising of significant hurdles in the administrative process, the transfer of power to local real estate zoning boards to limit occupancy rates, and the reduction of the minimum fines from $10,000 to $500. The PHRC opposed the bill as it "would reverse years of civil rights progress." The Department of Housing an d Urban Development has stated that the bill, if passed, would cause Pennsylvania to be so out of step and backward that HUD could no longer have PHRC investigate discrimination cases.