Friday, May 29, 2015

Federal Appeals Court Gives 'Thumbs-Down' To Two Fair Housing Groups' Effort To Apply Housing Discrimination Law To Internet-Based Outfit That Assists Those Seeking Out Roommates

In a 2012 ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had the opportunity to address the attempts by two (arguably over-zealous, maybe???) Southern California fair housing groups to apply the Federal Fair Housing Act to an internet-based business that helps roommates find each other. More specifically, the fair housing groups "allege[d] that the website's questions requiring disclosure of sex, sexual orientation and familial status, and its sorting, steering and matching of users based on those characteristics, violate the Fair Housing Act ... ".

The court framed the overarching issue as follows:
  • There's no place like home. In the privacy of your own home, you can take off your coat, kick off your shoes, let your guard down and be completely yourself. While we usually share our homes only with friends and family, sometimes we need to take in a stranger to help pay the rent. When that happens, can the government limit whom we choose? Specifically, do the anti-discrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA") extend to the selection of roommates?
Because of what the court described as "substantial constitutional concerns" (personal privacy, autonomy, security, right to intimate association), the court answered in the negative.

Some of the court's observations and a portion of its rationale follow:
  • There's no indication that Congress intended to interfere with personal relationships inside (emphasis in the original) the home. Congress wanted to address the problem of landlords discriminating in the sale and rental of housing, which deprived protected classes of housing opportunities. But a business transaction between a tenant and landlord is quite different from an arrangement between two people sharing the same living space. We seriously doubt Congress meant the FHA to apply to the latter.


    To determine whether a particular relationship is protected by the right to intimate association we look to "size, purpose, selectivity, and whether others are excluded from critical aspects of the relationship." Bd. of Dirs. of Rotary Int'l, 481 U.S. at 546, 107 S.Ct. 1940. The roommate relationship easily qualifies: People generally have very few roommates; they are selective in choosing roommates; and non-roommates are excluded from the critical aspects of the relationship, such as using the living spaces. Aside from immediate family or a romantic partner, it's hard to imagine a relationship more intimate than that between roommates, who share living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, even bedrooms.

    Because of a roommate's unfettered access to the home, choosing a roommate implicates significant privacy and safety considerations. The home is the center of our private lives. Roommates note our comings and goings, observe whom we bring back at night, hear what songs we sing in the shower, see us in various stages of undress and learn intimate details most of us prefer to keep private. Roommates also have access to our physical belongings and to our person. As the Supreme Court recognized, "[w]e are at our most vulnerable when we are asleep because we cannot monitor our own safety or the security of our belongings." Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U.S. 91, 99, 110 S.Ct. 1684, 109 L.Ed.2d 85 (1990). Taking on a roommate means giving him full access to the space where we are most vulnerable.

    Equally important, we are fully exposed to a roommate's belongings, activities, habits, proclivities and way of life. This could include matter we find offensive (pornography, religious materials, political propaganda); dangerous (tobacco, drugs, firearms); annoying (jazz, perfume, frequent overnight visitors, furry pets); habits that are incompatible with our lifestyle (early risers, messy cooks, bathroom hogs, clothing borrowers). When you invite others to share your living quarters, you risk becoming a suspect in whatever illegal activities they engage in.

    Government regulation of an individual's ability to pick a roommate thus intrudes into the home, which "is entitled to special protection as the center of the private lives of our people." Minnesota v. Carter, 525 U.S. 83, 99, 119 S.Ct. 469, 142 L.Ed.2d 373 (1998) (Kennedy, J., concurring). "Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home." Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 562, 123 S.Ct. 2472, 156 L.Ed.2d 508 (2003). Holding that the FHA applies inside a home or apartment would allow the government to restrict our ability to choose roommates compatible with our lifestyles. This would be a serious invasion of privacy, autonomy and security.(1)


    Because the construction of "dwelling" to include shared living units raises substantial constitutional concerns, we adopt the narrower construction that excludes roommate selection from the reach of the FHA.
For the ruling, see Fair Housing Council v. Roommate. Com, LLC, 666 F. 3d 1216 (9th Cir. 2012).

See also, Fair Housing Defense blog: Are Individual Roommate Searches Covered by the FHA? No.


(1) The court offered some examples illustrating the kind of problems that could arise if the Fair Housing Act applied to roommate selection:
  • For example, women will often look for female roommates because of modesty or security concerns. As roommates often share bathrooms and common areas, a girl may not want to walk around in her towel in front of a boy. She might also worry about unwanted sexual advances or becoming romantically involved with someone she must count on to pay the rent.

    An orthodox Jew may want a roommate with similar beliefs and dietary restrictions, so he won't have to worry about finding honey-baked ham in the refrigerator next to the potato latkes. Non-Jewish roommates may not understand or faithfully follow all of the culinary rules, like the use of different silverware for dairy and meat products, or the prohibition against warming non-kosher food in a kosher microwave. Taking away the ability to choose roommates with similar dietary restrictions and religious convictions will substantially burden the observant Jew's ability to live his life and practice his religion faithfully. The same is true of individuals of other faiths that call for dietary restrictions or rituals inside the home.

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently dismissed a complaint against a young woman for advertising, "I am looking for a female christian roommate," on her church bulletin board. In its Determination of No Reasonable Cause, HUD explained that "in light of the facts provided and after assessing the unique context of the advertisement and the roommate relationship involved . . . the Department defers to Constitutional considerations in reaching its conclusions." Fair Hous. Ctr. of W. Mich. v. Tricia, No. 05-10-1738-8 (Oct. 28, 2010) (Determination of No Reasonable Cause).

    [Editor's Note: See Feds Drop Case Against Woman Who Sought Christian Roommate for a media report about that case.]

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