Florida's Fair Housing Continuum wins $18,000 in settlements from two local shopping papers

Late last year, the Fair Housing Continuum (FHC) of Cocoa, Florida settled two advertising cases against two shopping papers doing business in Brevard County. In October 1996, the Thrifty Nickel agreed to pay more than $7,000 to the Fair Housing Continuum for running discriminatory ads in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Less than a month later, the Little Paper agreed to pay more than $11,000 for similar violations.

From April to September 1995, the Fair Housing Continuum monitored local newspapers and magazines. During that time, the non-profit fair housing agency found at least 115 separate real estate advertisements that violated both Florida and federal laws. Most of the discriminatory ads were geared at keeping out families with children and single women. When the Fair Housing Continuum contacted some of the landlords who placed the ads, they heard several reasons why: "Single women attract men at night." "We don't rent to families because of insurance rates." "This is an adult community." One landlord they contacted was an attorney. He said, "I don't want other people's children to interfere with my law practice."

In November 1995, the Fair Housing Continuum invited the publishers of many local newspapers to attend a seminar about the Fair Housing Act as it relates to advertising. The editors of both the Thrifty Nickel and the Little Paper were invited, but neither chose to attend. The Fair Housing Continuum even ran an ad in The Tribune, a newspaper published in Melbourne, Florida.

On February 28, 1996, after nearly a year of monitoring discriminatory ads, Gilbert Camacho, the executive director of the Fair Housing Continuum, wrote a letter to the publisher of the Thrifty Nickel. Camacho explained that despite numerous efforts to educate local papers on the issues of discrimination in advertising, the Thrifty Nickel continued to run ads that violated the Fair Housing Act. Camacho warned the publisher that if their practices did not change, he would begi n "necessary administrative or legal action to correct the situation." Still, the discriminatory ads continued.

On May 31, 1996, FHC Fair Housing Specialist C.J. Miles tested the Thrifty Nickel's advertising department by telephone. Miles asked a Thrifty Nickel employee about the wording in two discriminatory ads which he said he intended to place. The first ad was "Two bedroom apartment, one bath, screen porch, no children, $350 per month." The employee told Miles that he may want to change "no children" to "no children preferred," but that the ad was okay other than that. The second ad was "One bedroom efficiency, near schools, Catholic church, single working man preferred, $225 per month." The employee said that she didn't see a problem with the ad. Miles tested the Little Paper on the same day with similar results.

The FHC sued both publishers and both cases settled rather quickly. Camacho said of the Thrifty Nickel case, "The case was settled because the Thrifty Nickel realized the impact of what had happened., and because it was committed to fixing the problem." He later added, "This is a great example of what can be accomplished when reasonable people agree to fix a problem."

After the Little Paper case was settled, Camacho remarked that the "rampant" discrimination throughout Florida had gone on long enough and that the FHC was going to start going after the landlords who place discriminatory ads. Camacho also pointed a finger at local governments. "Most people recognize discriminatory advertisements or actions when they see them; however, they don't know what to do about them. Florida has only three non-profit fair housing agencies and fair housing laws have seldom been enforced by local governments."

In addition to the monetary settlements, both papers agreed to run a disclaimer in their real estate sections which outlines the Fair Housing Act and includes the Fair Housing Continuum's phone number. They also agreed to run fair housing ads created by the National Fair Housing Alliance twice a month for two years at no cost.