SILVER SPRING, Md. — Some of the nation’s leading property management companies deliberately excluded older people from seeing Facebook advertisements for dozens of apartment complexes in the Washington, D.C., area, a housing watchdog alleged in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The Housing Rights Initiative billed its federal class action as the first lawsuit to accuse residential property management companies of engaging in “digital discrimination” in housing advertising.
Anyone over 50 was deemed to be too old to receive housing ads on Facebook for the 10 companies named as defendants in the lawsuit filed in Maryland, the New York-based non-profit said.
“They knowingly decided not to advertise their rental properties to older people when they recruited prospective tenants via Facebook because they wanted to steer away older people from their properties and attract younger tenants,” the suit says.
Facebook isn’t named as a defendant in the non-profit’s lawsuit, but the federal government has accused the social media giant of discrimination for allowing landlords and real estate brokers to systematically exclude non-Christians, immigrants, minorities and other groups from seeing ads for houses and apartments.
The companies named as defendants include Bozzuto Management Co., of Greenbelt, Maryland; Greystar Management Services LP, of Charleston, South Carolina; Kettler Management Inc., of McLean, Virginia; and Wood Residential Services LLC, of Rockville, Maryland.
Steve Hallsey, managing director of Wood Residential Services’ parent company, said the company “is proud of its history of diversity and inclusion to provide housing to all.”
“This lawsuit has absolutely no merit and we believe it will be rejected by the courts,” Hallsey said in statement.
Representatives of other companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
“This lawsuit is not about one or two small players who inadvertently misused digital tools,” the suit says. “Instead, it involves several leaders in the industry — marquee names like Bozzuto, Greystar, and Kettler — that manage hundreds of thousands of apartments nationally and that knowingly paid substantial sums of money to Facebook to categorically withhold their ads from older people.”
Facebook and its advertisers know the age of users because they must disclose their birth dates as a condition of joining the online platform. Facebook uses that information to encourage advertisers to target ads based on a user’s age, the suit claims.
“The default setting for ads is 18 to 65+, which means that anyone who is 18-years-old or older could receive the ad. But Facebook has strongly encouraged advertisers to narrow the age range of the individuals who will receive their ads to make them more effective,” the suit says.
The housing watchdog is seeking unspecified damages and asking the court to bar the 10 companies from advertising on Facebook until the social media platform “no longer uses a discriminatory algorithm to determine the recipients of advertisements.”
In March 2019, Facebook said it would overhaul its ad-targeting systems to prevent discrimination in housing, credit and employment ads as part of a legal settlement with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Later that month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed civil charges accusing Facebook of promoting housing discrimination. That case is still pending.
Associated Press reporter Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, California, contributed to this report.
Michael Kunzelman, The Associated Press