Suzanne Garrow could not believe the bold, black and discriminatory words that were published in the back pages of the Florida Times-Union.
A classified advertisement toward the bottom of Page D6 on May 24, 2021, sought a “Mature Adult Only!” for a property on the Westside.
Garrow, a staff attorney with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid in its fair housing division, recalls seeing the advertisement in the region’s biggest daily newspaper and wondering whether there was a wider problem.
That question was answered last week when Jacksonville Area Legal Aid announced a settlement with Gannett Co., the Times-Union’s parent company. The media conglomerate agreed to provide its advertising terms and conditions to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to review and correct any issues identified by the federal agency.
The Jacksonville settlement highlighted HUD’s efforts across the country to combat housing discrimination at a time when people already struggle to find affordable living arrangements. It also was praised for its potential to curtail discriminatory advertising in dozens of cities, given Gannett’s vast reach in news markets.
Garrow says she and her colleagues reviewed the classified sections of The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.); Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach) and Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) because all of those news organizations were in similar-sized media markets, owned by Gannett and the same region within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid spent more than six months investigating before it filed a complaint in December 2021. At that time, it accused Gannett of publishing “discriminatory advertisements throughout the United States on basis of sex, race and familial status” online and in print.
Gannett did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Gannett controls the Times-Union, St. Augustine Record and 17 other newspapers in Florida. Nationwide, it owns more than 200 news organizations.
“As a result of the settlement, HUD will make sure Gannett has policies in place that do not allow discriminatory advertising to be published,” Garrow says. “Additionally, they’ll be monitoring that advertising and making sure that advertising – both in print and also in the digital world – are responsible going forward. I think it does have a broader reach because it reaches so many different markets.”
One day after the initial advertisement seeking a mature adult, the Times-Union published another housing ad saying “WF SEEKS ROOMMATE” on the Westside.
The Times-Union published both advertisements more than a half-dozen times. Garrow says she conducted a similar review of the St. Augustine Record and did not see classified ads that appeared discriminatory.
Other classifieds for furnished apartments in North Riverside, Moncrief, Downtown and Murray Hill at the time did not mention race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin in their advertisements.
However, the landlord for one of the rooms listed in the classified advertisements told Jacksonville Today the newspaper has since forced her to change the wording of her classified ads.
HUD has increased its enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, the 1968 law that states it’s illegal to discriminate in the sale, rental or financing of housing due to seven categories: race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status and national origin.
In a statement to Jacksonville Today, a HUD spokeswoman noted that discriminatory marketing, application processing and waitlist management practices that limit access can contribute to segregation.
Last year, HUD outlined how housing discrimination is perpetuated. Its aim in providing suggestions to landlords was to ensure property owners reached all members of a community when there were housing opportunities.
In June 2022, the U.S. Justice Department reached a settlement agreement with Meta Platforms Inc. for using its algorithm to determine which Facebook users received housing advertisements. HUD was pleased the social media giant agreed to no longer provide targeting options on housing advertisements that may include characteristics protected by the Fair Housing Act, to create a new system for delivering housing advertisements and to work to select a third-party reviewer to determine whether the systems adhered to Fair Housing Act guidelines.
At that time, Demetria McCain, HUD’s principal deputy assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, stressed that those who discriminate in the housing market must be held accountable.
Since then, a $3 million settlement was reached against a California property management company for discrimination against families with children and the Atlanta Housing Authority was forced to create a $2 million fund to repay people with disabilities who were discriminated against because public housing in the Georgia capital did not provide enough reasonable accommodations.
On July 7, the same day Jacksonville Area Legal Aid announced its settlement with Gannett, HUD announced a 6.5% increase in funding for two programs within its Fair Housing Assistance Program. The $29.5 million in total funding will focus on local and state efforts to enforce housing laws and educate organizations to ensure they do not run afoul of federal regulations.
Florida has endured a “systemic loss of housing” since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid CEO Jim Kowalski told Jacksonville Today last fall.
Last fall, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid CEO Jim Kowalski told Jacksonville Today it’s imperative to Florida’s economy that people have access to housing “somewhere near their jobs.”
During his presentation to the city of Jacksonville’s Special Committee on Critical Quality of Life Issues in October, Kowalski – while discussing the effect of evictions and foreclosures on affordable housing – said it’s easier and cheaper to ensure people are housed than unhoused or in an unstable living environment.
In an analysis of Duval County’s housing trends in April, the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida found home prices in Duval County are less volatile than other areas of Florida.
The Shimberg Center concluded that over a 10-year period, the total number of rental units here increased, but the number of rental units that were less than $1,000 per month declined by more than 11,500 units in that period.
This week, during a city of Jacksonville affordable housing subcommittee meeting, Jacksonville Housing Authority CEO Dwayne Alexander noted more than 140,000 people are on a local affordable housing wait list.
“Limiting people’s options in such a tight and difficult housing market, particularly for private – what might be – affordable housing, it’s really problematic to have those limitations,” Garrow says. “It is even more imperative now that the housing shortage is so great, particularly in our community.”