Home rental sites are a popular way these days for homeowners to make some extra cash, but the News4 I-Team found it’s costing some of them thousands of dollars because of how they advertised the property.
Bradford Burke started renting out a two-bedroom basement apartment in the Trinidad neighborhood of D.C. more than a year ago on Airbnb. He said it stays pretty full year round with most visitors staying on average four nights.
"I have rented to family, to same sex couples that were adopting a child, to professionals who can't find a hotel room," Burke said.
He said he worried small children might hurt themselves on hanging rope shelves he installed that’s filled with glassware, so he wrote in his ad the space wasn't childproof, requesting no children under 5. But, he said, the ad also stated renters could reach out to him on a case-by-case basis, and he said children under 5 have stayed there.
However, about a month ago some sticky notes started showing up on his front door informing him he'd been sued under the Fair Housing Act for discriminating against families with children.
“The guy you know, never called, never sent an email," Burke said. "I have never heard of this guy."
The I-Team found more than 40 similar lawsuits filed in D.C. and Florida since 2013 by a Rockville man named Darrell Rogers and his attorney, Shawn Heller, with the Social Justice Law Collective in Florida.
"Denying housing opportunities to people to families with children is illegal and wrong," Sheller told the I-Team. Some of the lawsuits filed targeted ads stating "Adults only please," "Dwelling not suitable for children" and "discounts for adult-only groups," and claimed Rogers was "emotionally distraught and extremely insulted by the ads."
"It's a way to ensure that that discriminatory advertisement and policy comes to an end through either settlement agreement or judgment," Heller said.
Rogers doesn't even have to try to actually rent the property in order to file a suit because he's what's called a tester, Heller said.
"Courts have recognized that testers often times have increased damages over people who wouldn't otherwise be in that role because these are people who are dedicated and care about Fair Housing Law Enforcement. And every time Mr. Rogers, or any of our other clients, sees another discriminatory ad, and another discriminatory ad, it piles on and it makes them additionally upset and insulted," he explained.
Heller insisted this is not a money-making operation and that the cases take a lot of work and time. The I-Team found almost every case it reviewed did end with a settlement. Multiple defendants said the amounts ranged between $7,000 $14,000.
“Since we do not charge our clients, these are the ways in which we’re able to fund this very important work that we do,” Heller said.
Suzanne, who rents her second home in Adams Morgan, said she’s not convinced.
“I think he must be doing it just to make money," she said.
She said she didn’t know she was being sued after posting that her place was not suitable for children until the I-Team called her.
“I had some parents who were upset about some of my art," she said.
She said she also worried about her antiques and a potential risk with an open deck that a child could slip through.
"I think I have the perfect right to do this," she said.
“The issue of people not allowing children in rentals is a very old issue in advertising, but in connection with these kinds of sites, this is a new issue,” said Robert Duston, a Fair Housing Act expert and member of the DC Bar.
Owners need to think carefully about what they write when advertising because when you put your own home into the rental market, it becomes a business, Duston said.
"You can't express a preference and the more you say and try to suggest this is not a good place for kids, the more it looks like you're expressing a preference. So the less you say, the better," said Duston.
"It’s our view that all these advertisements can be done in a non-discriminatory way and that we need to make sure that the parents are the ones who are empowered to make these decisions, not the landlord," said Heller.
But Burke said though he’s changed the language in his ads, he doesn’t believe he's discriminated against anyone.
"I fully intend to try and fight this to the end," he said.
Duston recommended doing research if you have questions about whether your property is covered by the Fair Housing Act or consult an attorney. He said you should also confirm that you’re even allowed to rent by checking your own lease or homeowner’s association policy. And when it comes to writing that advertisement, he suggested, “You can state, here’s the conditions of my house. Say ‘I welcome children. You’re welcome to bring your children. But as prospective parents who are renting, I just want you to know the conditions that are there and you make the choice.’ And that’s perfectly legal.”
A spokesperson for Airbnb provided this statement to the I-Team:
"A survey of our guests this summer found that more and more families are traveling through Airbnb not only for its affordability, but also for the convenience and the amenities some of our listings provide. Over 250,000 homes across the United States are labeled by our hosts as being family-friendly -- a number that has more than doubled in the past year. While we are not at liberty to discuss the suits currently involving our hosts, we are working diligently with our growing community on a solution that will serve the diverse array of listings we provide, and the diverse community of guests and families who utilize our platform."
Attorney Shawn Heller also provided the following information:
“By way of comparison, we thought it worth sending you links to two DOJ press releases regarding recently obtained settlements. In both instances, DOJ testers uncovered the same type of discrimination that is at issue in our lawsuits, in the context of the sale and rental of mobile homes. In those cases, each defendant had to pay over $100K in damages and penalties, as part of their settlements.”
- Justice Department Obtains $130,000 Settlement in Lawsuit Against Indiana Mobile Home Park for Discriminating Against Families with Children
- Justice Department Obtains $100,000 Settlement in Lawsuit Against Wisconsin Mobile Home Park for Discriminating Against Families with Children
Reported by Tisha Thompson, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper, and edited by Steve Jones.