Social Media Tenant Screening Risks And Fair Housing

social media and tenant screening

Have you thought about using social media tenant screening as a way to checkout potential tenants on social media or checking on current residents on social media? The Grace Hill training tip of the week focuses on this issue and the Fair Housing Act.

By Ellen  Clark

Social media can be a tempting tool to find more information about tenants and prospective tenants, but the information you find can leave you vulnerable to discrimination claims.

But what about looking up applicants or residents on social media? Can that be problematic from a fair housing perspective? Let’s take a look.

First some background as the topic of social media and fair housing is back in the headlines.

In March, fair housing organizations filed a lawsuit against Facebook, accusing the company of allowing real estate companies and landlords to exclude women and families with children from seeing certain housing ads.  The lawsuit, filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the world’s largest social network still allows advertisers to discriminate against legally protected groups, including mothers, the disabled and Spanish-language speakers.

Diane Houk, lead counsel for the alliance, told ProPublica this type of discrimination is especially difficult to uncover and combat. “The person who is being discriminated against has no way to know” it, because the technology “keeps the discrimination hidden in hopes that it will not be caught,” she said.

Facebook disputes the housing groups’ allegations. “There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook. We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously,” said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne told ProPublica.

A few weeks ago we talked about how social media communications are often considered advertisements, and discrimination in advertising is prohibited by the Fair Housing Act. It is illegal to create, publish or distribute housing ads that discriminate, limit or deny equal access to housing because of membership in any federally protected class.

Using social media tenant screening 

It may be tempting to use social media to learn more about prospective residents during the screening process.

However, on social media you are likely to find out information that defines someone as protected class, such as their religion, that they have children, or that they have a disability.

This could make you more likely to deny someone housing based on those characteristics, which could make you more vulnerable to discrimination claims.

If you think what you find on social media could influence, or even appear to influence, your decision about leasing to someone, then steer clear of investigating on social media. The best thing to do is follow your standard application and qualification procedures consistently for all prospects.

If you connect with residents on social media, think carefully before acting on information you find.

 Using social media to check on current tenants

Imagine you have a couple living in a one-bedroom apartment home.

Your occupancy limits specify two people per bedroom.

On social media, you learn that the couple is in the process of adopting twins. What should you do?

In this case, it is best to not take any action.

Even making a note of this in the residents’ file could be problematic if you face a fair housing claim. It could appear as though you used the couple’s familial status in making decisions, which could violate fair housing law.

What if you come across something concerning about residents on social media, such an indication that they lied on their application or weren’t honest in an accommodation request?

Consult with your supervisor and legal counsel before taking any action. If you act on information and are wrong about what you found, you may put yourself at risk for a fair housing complaint.

Summary on social media tenant screening and fair housing

In this age of social media, it is important to understand that you are responsible for acting in a non-discriminatory way, no matter what form of communication you are using.

You must be just as mindful of fair housing laws when sharing information and interacting with customers online as you are when sharing information and interacting in print and in person.

The same rules apply.

Read Ellen’s full blog post here.

Successful Landlords Know All Tenant Screening Companies Are Not The Same

About the author:

Ellen Clark is the Director of Assessment at Grace Hill.  Her work has spanned the entire learner lifecycle, from elementary school through professional education. She spent over 10 years working with K12 Inc.’s network of online charter schools – measuring learning, developing learning improvement plans using evidence-based strategies, and conducting learning studies. Later, at Kaplan Inc., she worked in the vocational education and job training divisions, improving online, blended and face-to-face training programs, and working directly with business leadership and trainers to improve learner outcomes and job performance. Ellen lives and works in Maryland, where she was born and raised.

About Grace Hill

For nearly two decades, Grace Hill has been developing best-in-class online training courseware and administration solely for the Property Management Industry, designed to help people, teams and companies improve performance and reduce risk.

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