The Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Website Accessibility for Real Estate Agents

Florida is a hotbed for website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits, particularly under The Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Of course, ADA website compliance has stolen the headlines for the past three years but FHA demand letters have surged in 2020 as they provide an outlet to sue those involved in housing (as opposed to entities that are public accommodations).

The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination. It covers private housing, housing that receives Federal financial assistance, and State and local government housing.

So if you’re a property manager, landlord, broker, seller, or another type of professional real estate agent with a website, you should be on high alert because demand letters and lawsuits are being sent out like crazy – yes, even amidst COVID-19.

The Law

Here’s a nice summary courtesy of ADA.gov:

It is unlawful to discriminate in any aspect of selling or renting housing or to deny a dwelling to a buyer or renter because of the disability of that individual, an individual associated with the buyer or renter, or an individual who intends to live in the residence. Other covered activities include, for example, financing, zoning practices, new construction design, and advertising. (cite ADA.gov)

Here’s the precise law from the Federal Fair Housing Act:

The actual law for this is Sec. 804.[42 U.S.C. 3604] Discrimination in sale or rental of housing and other prohibited practices:

It shall be unlawful:

(C) To make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.

The Florida Fair Housing Act has the same exact language in Section 760.23(3).

Basically, it all boils down to websites advertise properties/houses/homes/apartments and if your website is viewed as inaccessible, it amounts to discrimination.

Web Accessibility

Plaintiffs’ law firms are running on this continuum and making the claim that websites with accessibility issues discriminate on the basis of disability.

This is a twist to the ADA Compliance lawsuits (and parallel state anti-discrimination lawsuits) we see being brought against website owners across the United States but the storyline is basically the same, only this time landlords, realtors, real estate brokers, real estate agents, property managers, etc. are specifically under fire.

Think of it like this: the ADA applies to all entities that avail themselves of the general public and the Fair Housing Act specifically applies to those in the housing industry.

Florida is currently the leader in Fair Housing Act website claims but they’re merely at the forefront; there’s no reason another state can’t see a surge in claims.

What to do?

So, what should you do if you’re in the real estate game?

Initially, I wrote remediate your website for accessibility but there are so many demand letters being sent out in Florida right now, unless I was getting a ton of leads from Google / my SEO was off the charts, I would take my domain name and forward it to my Facebook business page.

Another option is my WordPress theme, Accessible Theme (the very theme you’re reading this article on).  This is a plain, standard theme that I created so people would have a placeholder to keep a website up while they try to sort things out (and not get sued in the mean while).

Accessible Theme doesn’t automatically make your content accessible but it gives you an accessible base to build off of out of the box.

If you want to take the more formal route (this takes at least 2 weeks at lightening speed for a small website) of remediating your existing website, the best way to approach this is to first have your website audited by an independent expert and then have your website remediated for accessibility.

An audit will list out all of the major accessibility issues on your website per WCAG 2.0 AA or WCAG 2.1 AA (these are standards set out by the W3C, an international community for establishing standards for the web).

Remediation is the fixing or retrofitting of your website to correct issues found in the audit. You’ll likely need a web developer to make the changes.

I provide these services through my company, Accessible.org. If you need help, feel free to email me at kris@accessible.org.

Also, I recommend you subscribe to Accessible.org so you can get alerts on products, services, and info designed to reduce your risk of lawsuit and make website accessibility easier and cheaper.