Federal housing officials have filed a formal complaint against Facebook, alleging the social media network violated the Fair Housing Act by allowing landlords and home sellers to use its advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination.

HUD claims Facebook enables advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads based upon the recipient’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip code.

"Facebook then invites advertisers to express unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of 'targeted advertising,'" says HUD. Read the complaint.

HUD alleges Facebook's platform allows advertisers to:

  • Display housing ads either only to men or women;
  • Not show ads to users interested in an "assistance dog," "mobility scooter," "accessibility" or "deaf culture";
  • Not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in "child care" or "parenting," or show ads only to users with children above a specified age;
  • To display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion or tenet, such as the "Christian Church," "Sikhism," "Hinduism," or the "Bible";
  • Not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in "Latin America," "Canada," "Southeast Asia," "China," "Honduras," or "Somalia; and
  • Draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.

Facebook provided a statement to Affordable Housing Finance.

“There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies," said the statement. "Over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We're aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”

The HUD action is a "secretary-initiated complaint." HUD says the secretary of HUD "may file a fair housing complaint directly against those whom the department believes may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Secretary-initiated complaints are appropriate in cases, among others, involving significant issues that are national in scope or when the department is made aware of potential violations of the act and broad public interest relief is warranted or where HUD does not know of a specific aggrieved person or injured party that is willing or able to come forward. A Fair Housing Act complaint, including a secretary initiated complaint, is not a determination of liability."

An investigation now follows. Earlier this year, several housing organization sued Facebook, alleging that the network's advertising platform enables landlords and real estate brokers to exclude families with children, women, and other protected classes of people from receiving housing ads.