The Washington Post Vs. Splitwise

On February 2nd, the US Supreme Court decided that the Fair Housing Act does not apply to roommate searches. The upshot of this decision is that people are free to conduct roommate searches based on sex, religion, marital or family status. That is, you can “discriminate” as much as you please in picking your roommates (but not if you are a landlord renting to tenants).

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post praised this decision. It’s worth taking the author, Riger Oliveri, seriously – she is an associate Dean at University of Missouri Law School who has studied discrimination in Craigslist posts, and she practiced Civil Rights law at the Justice Department.

While broadly expressing support for the Supreme Court’s arguments, Oliveri adds that preserving choice in roommates will keep government regulation out of the home for non-traditional living arrangements as well. For instance, unmarried couples living together won’t have to fear government regulation according to the logic of this opinion (the case was against Roommates.com).

I take a slightly more nuanced view of the opinion. I share Oliveri’s enthusiasm for keeping regulation out of the privacy of the home. Picking roommates based on religion, gender, and family status makes sense – these create understandable and important practical issues inside a residence. For instance, the Fair Housing Act was clearly not intended to force people to live with people of the opposite gender against their will. What I am concerned about is that racially based roommate discrimination was not addressed by the opinion.

In tight housing markets like Boston or New York, one of the only affordable ways to rent is to find roommates with spare bedrooms. If there are no protections for searchers, I worry that racist roommate postings could keep a minority group out of a neighborhood entirely. This is exactly what the Fair Housing Act was designed to prevent.

Fortunately, Oliveri’s own study shows that this isn’t a very large issue at present. In her work, she finds only 9.7% of the posts seeking roommates on Craigslist would have violated the Fair Housing Act. Since most roommate posts only discriminated based family status, there is little evidence that roommate racism is a pervasive problem. Hopefully, this Supreme Court decision will not change people’s behavior in the future.

To summarize: I don’t object to the Supreme Court’s decision because choosing roommates based on gender, religion, and family status is clearly legitimate. I agree with Oliveri that the Fair Housing Act is too broad and would create too much regulation inside the home if it applied to roommate choice. My hope is that common decency will keep racist roommate ads to an insignificant fraction. If that proves too optimistic a hope, then we may yet see another law or another Supreme Court case.

Published by

Jon Bittner

Splitwise helps you and your friends keep track of shared expenses, so that bills (and friends) get paid on time.

5 thoughts on “The Washington Post Vs. Splitwise”

  1. this is a big/common/prevalent problem in Singapore and Malaysia, I know slightly irrelevant, but if you want to study race discrimination housing, you should look up Singapore and Malaysia as examples. You will find ads common to say “Chinese or white expats only”. Or “Malays only”. Or ads written in Chinese. Some are guised under religious reasons (ie Malay muslims do not want to rent out homes to Chinese who cook/eat pork etc). There is a clear bias against Indian ethnic groups whom many landlords claim that they cook with too much spices and do not want curry odor to stick. Not jesting.
    http://blogs.wsj.com/searealtime/2011/11/10/discrimination-pervasive-in-singapore-property-rental-market/

    1. Wow, thanks for this fascinating perspective and article Khadijah. I have a very US-oriented perspective on discrimination, but housing and renting is a very international problem. When it comes to discrimination, we definitely need to rely on ethics when the law cannot or should not provide a remedy.

  2. I have been trying to find an apartment share in Brooklyn, NY for four months with no luck. I am a native New Yorker who is moving back after having lived on the West Coast. When I respond to postings, I usually always receive the excited initial email from the poster but once they see me, it is all over. Either they are visibly impatient or evm hostile or they act nice and you never hear from them again. One person refused to open the door. As a freelance artist, it is hard to afford New York rents on my own, so my choices have been: 1. crashing with a friend on their couch 2. sleeping in my car 3. living in an arrangement where my personal safety may be at risk. I’ve had a white friends move from across the country and find places in no time. Just last month, a friend of mine (white) moved from California to Brooklyn after finding a space in under a week. I came to find out after an awkward visit to her new place that I had also viewed the space with her now roommates who claimed during my visit that they would 1. have to background check me 2. lied to me about having to sign a lease with proof of six times the earnings of the rent 3. mentioned needing to pay three months of rent ahead of time in addition to the deposit 4. they refused to prorate despite a mid month move-in date. I was idiot enough to contact them back after the meeting looking to go through the steps with no response from them. For her, no such thing. They prorated her rent and she paid her one month deposit after she moved in. No income, credit or background check even mentioned by the roommates. I knew then and there that Craig’s list was not as impossible as it seemed, people just do not want to live with me and yeah, probably racist and small-minded. I am now hearing stories by other non-whites with the same issues. I find myself nervous when going to do the usual visit knowing the reaction I may get. I have resulted to posting “housing wanted” ads were my racial background (Biracial-Indian and Black) is clearly stated along with the other info such as age (mid-20s) and gender (female) and of course, I get the one response from a pervert but without it, I get a whole lot more.

    There is no legislation that can change this or any law on the books that can be enforced because it is someone’s personal space and choice which makes it difficult. The unfortunate part is the effect it has on young non-white people’s, sans East Asians who seem to be readily accepted by whites, ability to be socially and spatially mobile.

  3. I’ve had difficulty finding roommates using Craigslist.com because I received an email (from a strange old man with a mugshot–I found him from a google search)–saying that I was discriminating. I had said in my post that I was looking for students, and to reply by saying a little about yourself (your age, gender, etc). I in no way meant this to be discriminatory, but my post was removed from cl most likely bc this idiot reported my ad.

    As a young woman in college, I think I reserve the right to discriminate based on age, gender and whether you’re a student for SAFETY reasons. I put up another ad that gave no preferences and ended up having a visit to my house from a 34 yr old male.

    The Fair Housing Act should apply simply to race, nothing else. If you don’t want a roommate with kids, so WHAT? If you don’t want a roommate who is a 60 year man when you’re 21 years old, BIG DEAL. Ridiculous.

  4. So, you’re saying discriminating by a person’s race in roommate searches is wrong, but it’s totally fine to be sexist, ageist, or discriminate against people’s religion (“no Muslims or Jews wanted”)

    Got it.

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