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Popular listing services agree to combat online housing discrimination in D.C.

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Apartments.com and Zillow aim to help protect Section 8 participants

A road in an urban downtown. A few cars drive in either direction. The street is framed by tall buildings.
Downtown D.C.
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Original post, November 6:

After D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine in July put three home listing companies on notice about discriminatory ads on their platforms, one of the companies has implemented a new tool and procedures to tamp down on such ads. CoStar Group, which owns apartments.com, forrent.com, and other listing websites, is now using an “enhanced content filter” to screen out posts that appear to discriminate against Section 8 voucher-holders, says Racine’s office.

The company has also rolled out a “manual review process” to guard against discriminatory ads that slip through the filter. “As a result of these changes, Apartments.com has allowed zero discriminatory ads in D.C. to be posted directly on its platform in the last three weeks,” the attorney general’s office says in a recent release. The filter is designed to catch phrases that are commonly used in discriminatory rental ads, like “no vouchers” and “no Section 8.” It works across the U.S., not just in D.C. or other places that prohibit voucher discrimination.

In a statement, Racine said discrimination by landlords against recipients of government housing assistance “contribute to housing segregation and shut families out of access to opportunity.” He added that CoStar’s new efforts “will help level the playing field for low-income families and expand housing opportunity for renters in the District and across the country.” Locally, “source-of-income” discrimination is illegal, and vouchers are considered income. The District’s Human Rights Act also bans discrimination based on additional traits.

Beyond CoStar, Racine’s office wrote letters to Craigslist and Zillow, asking them to block or take down discriminatory housing posts from their platforms. A 2018 paper from the Urban Institute reported that about 15 percent of D.C. and Montgomery County landlords surveyed said they would not accept vouchers for rent payments. The practice happens elsewhere, too.

Update, November 20:

Seattle-based Zillow has also implemented a stronger filter to catch ostensibly discriminatory phrases in real estate listings on its platforms, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s office said Wednesday. Those platforms include the website bearing the company’s name in addition to HotPads and Trulia. Zillow will periodically review and refine the filter, noted Racine’s office.

His team “is actively seeking similar partnerships with Craigslist and Bright MLS, both of which operate real estate listing platforms,” according to a release. “We need more partners like Zillow and Apartments.com to step up and ensure that landlords who operate on these platforms comply with the District’s anti-discrimination laws,” Racine said in a statement. Zillow’s updated filter is active in D.C. and will undergo a quarterly manual review process.