You can’t write an ad that says you want to live with a female, gay person, Christian, or whatever category you might really care about. That’s illegal. The law says you may not make a public discriminatory statement about your preferences. While this may seem crazy, you do get to decide who you live with. Stick with me, and follow a clear selection process, and you’ll be fine.
In the United States, housing sales and rentals are governed by The Fair Housing Act (FHA), a law first passed in 1968 to prevent sellers and landlords from discriminating against people based on “race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and handicap (disability).” (Note: The text is no longer available.) It’s a good law that has changed housing in this country.
Fairness and Choosing a Housemate
The FHA has the unintended consequence of raising the issue of whether you can discriminate about whom you live with inside a dwelling.
So the Fair Housing Councils of San Fernando Valley and of San Diego took Roommates.com to court for using discriminatory categories in their matchmaking software. In the decision by the US Court of Appeals for the 9th district court of Feb 2, 2012 the court said, “Yes, you can discriminate.” This is a breath of fresh air for those of us paying attention to this issue.
The court decision says that the FHA is not “intended to interfere with personal relationships inside the home.” (emphasis in original). Elsewhere in the decision, Chief Judge Kozinski writes, “Holding that the FHA applies inside a home or apartment would allow the government to restrict our ability to choose roommates compatible with our lifestyles. This would be a serious invasion of privacy, autonomy and security.” He colorfully continues,
For example, women will often look for female roommates because of modesty or security concerns. As roommates often share bathrooms and common areas, a girl may not want to walk around in her towel in front of a boy. She might also worry about unwanted sexual advances or becoming romantically involved with someone she must count on to pay the rent.
An orthodox Jew may want a roommate with similar beliefs and dietary restrictions, so he won’t have to worry about finding honey-baked ham in the refrigerator next to the potato latkes. Non-Jewish roommates may not understand or faithfully follow all of the culinary rules, like the use of different silverware for dairy and meat products, or the prohibition against warming non-kosher food in a kosher microwave. Taking away the ability to choose roommates with similar dietary restrictions and religious convictions will substantially burden the observant Jew’s ability to live his life and practice his religion faithfully. The same is true of individuals of other faiths that call for dietary restrictions or rituals inside the home.
Exactly. Everyone can applaud the sanity of the decision. We do get to choose whom we live with.
What Does it Mean for Your Ad
But, but… we don’t get to advertise whom we want to live with. This is a fine point and may get changed in the future, but nothing in Judge Kozinski’s decision touches upon the public statement of preference. It is still illegal to state a discriminatory preference as craigslist users are reminded when they post.
The best way to manage this is to say who you are. Let your readers make their own choice. If you are an orthodox Jew keeping kosher say so. If you are a gay, Hispanic, and Republican say so. The person reading your ad can decide if they want to explore living with you.
Conduct a phone interview before meeting someone. You can learn a lot about a person in a telephone conversation. If you can tell that the person isn’t going to be a good match for you can always turn down someone by saying simply, “I don’t think it’s going to be a good fit. Good luck with your search.”
And you might get surprised. Maybe you’ll find the perfect housemate you might not have considered if you had limited your search by discriminatory categories. It could happen.
Update: h/t to commenter below.
In fact legal experts say it is possible to state a preference for the gender of the desired housemate, but you are on shaky grounds if that extends to other categories such as race or religion. Craigslist offers a statement of what you should follow.
Last Updated on May 31, 2018 by Annamarie
I responded to a room offering in a shared apartment. In an email, they asked me my age. What does the law say about this?
There is no law regulating who can be housemates. They are in their rights to ask your age. It may seem unfair, whether you are too old or too young for the household, but they do get to have their own requirements. Better to live with someone for whom you meet their requirements!
I am a student living in Florida student/resident housing for 2 years, where pay per room and share common areas in three bedroom apartment. Three out of seven roommates were a good match. Problems with the four females were: worked graveyard shift loud talking/music during the day, sociopath, malignant narcissist, and theft. Manager selects roommates. Due to problems requested highly to select students. Manager state will make decision on selection based on company needs. Currently have awesome roommate where we can communicate effectively. Third roommate arrived a month ago and she is a senior citizen working graveyard shift, roams house 15 hours a day, blasting loud music and television, loud company and consumes laundry 4 day per week, which does not allow us much time. She bought full size refrigerator, full cabinet, deep freezer, patio furniture that is too large for communal living. She is highly manipulative, entitled uses street colloquialism with slang, grunts, interrupts while speaking. Management allowed her to moved items in against our will. She also disagrees with living in harmony to be left alone and not disturbed. She is problematic management blames us for not giving it more time to get along. Recently she made allegations of me running the utilities high, state management gave information to her. I mentioned issue with management they denied telling her information. Now they want me to move out. I don’t think this is fair. What are my rights?
Sorry just saw this. I’d say you’d do better to move out and get out of a bad situation. This is not “shared housing” in the way that we think of it. You are in a rooming house and as long as management gets to say what happens .. they can ask you to leave. Not worth fighting unless all of you tell management you are leaving her alone in the space. I know that finding good housing is hard. I’m sorry you have to deal with this.
I have a question for you regarding house mates and would love to speak with you for a few short minutes if possible, would we be able to get in contact?
Afiya Walker -Sills
One question, are u allowed to advertise “female looking for female roommate “? Some say yes others say no.
Exactly the problem. Some say yes, and some say no. If it were me I wouldn’t say and then when I was talking to someone on the telephone and it was clearly a male and I didn’t want to live with one, I’d just say, Thank you so much, I don’t think it would be a good fit and get off the telephone. Or an email that makes it clear it is a male, not answer the email. But let me say this – I’ve known many nice guys who are great housemates for some women. They use a house differently and sometimes it’s easier. Just saying…
I am still confused about the law. We are five guys and we want 6th roommate to be a male just avoid any uncomfortable situations with all the me “me too” thing going on.
Are not we allowed to say that in the ad? Or let’s say female comes by and she qualifies with all except her gender, how should we respond to her?
We are very confused and stressed out about this.
Please stop being stressed out about this. It’s simple – you say your are five guys looking for a sixth housemate. You don’t say what gender you might be looking for. When a female candidate applies you have a short screening interview and you say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s going to be a fit.” and then get off the phone.
Honestly in this me-too time I think it unlikely that a female will apply to live with five men. Unless she’s gay or transitioning… Or…
I hope this helps..
So, I know this is old, but I was looking into it recently. Every other blog I can find about this lawsuit in 2012 involving roommates.com says that the whole point is that they CAN advertise “female roommate wanted” now. That was what the entire lawsuit was about — that roommates.com had categories for gender-specific roommates. And the court ruling was that they CAN have them (and they STILL have them).
It looks to me like everyone else disagrees with your interpretation that this does not affect the public advertising. From what I can tell, everyone else thinks that they CAN both discriminate based on gender (for roommates, of course) and also CAN advertise it. (Unlike the “Mrs. Murphy’s exemption” where you can discriminate, but not advertise it.)
Do you disagree with that? Because, again, doing a quick search on this finds dozens of other legal sites discussing it saying that the whole point of the case was that you can not only discriminate based on gender for roommates, but that you can advertise that way too (which, again, is what the site was doing involved in the case and they basically “won”).
Point taken and the piece slightly amended. I still think it is best to avoid it altogether. I also think that many women are too quick to dismiss the idea of living with the opposite sex. There are some big advantages IF it’s the right relationship.
I disagree with your statement because the court held that you do not have to share your bathroom etc with someone of the opposite sex.
You simply have a choice on that, you are allowed to discriminate what room mate(s) you live with. However the court also held that you are not allowed to publicly specify what you will accept or not.
It may sound technical that you are allowed to choose based on sex, that you are allowed to say what you are looking for (since it only states your preference), but that you are not allowed to advertise what you will accept and what you will choose because the advertiser is another entity. They are not looking for a roommate, but you are. So they would violate the FHA for you and then it is not legal anymore.
The court had to draw the line somewhere, and that’s where the line was drawn (so far).
The whole discussion would be entirely different if it was not a room mate situation (i.e. the homeowner owns more than 4 dwelling units or does not live in any one of them), because then you are no longer choosing who you live with but discriminate based on other criteria.
Great explanation Annamarie! I just got a inquiry about this. I said the same thing, basically, but you said it even better. I plan on referring to your blog article about this. Thanks so much again.