INDIANAPOLIS — During a visit to Indianapolis last October, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson decried what he saw as housing discrimination practices by Facebook.

"Housing discrimination should never find a safe haven online, or offline for that matter," Carson said at the time.

On Thursday, HUD announced it was charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act, alleging the media giant encouraged and enabled housing discrimination through the company's advertising platform. 

The move was seen as a needed step by fair housing groups.

"Today's charge of discrimination by HUD is an extremely positive step forward. It tried to bring some compliance in this area that has really run without much oversight for many years," said Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana (FHCCI).

"One of the biggest areas we've been running into is discriminatory advertising," she said.

FHCCI is not involved in the charge announced Thursday.

A HUD investigation was launched in August after a complaint was filed on behalf of the HUD secretary. The complaint alleged that Facebook promoted its advertising targeting platform for housing with "success stories" for finding "the perfect homeowners" and "personalizing property ads."

In response to the August announcement by HUD, Facebook issued a statement that it would continue working with the agency saying, "There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it's strictly prohibited in our polices. "We've strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse."

As part of Thursday's complaint, it was alleged Facebook categories were based on national origins and not showing interest in Latin America, Southeast Asia, China, and the Hispanic National Bar Association, among others.

The charge claims Facebook allows advertisers to choose from hundreds of thousands of attributes, for example, to exclude "women in the workforce," "moms of grade school kids," "foreigners," "Puerto Rico Islanders," or people interested in "parenting" or "accessibility." Facebook has offered advertisers the ability to limit the audience of an ad by selecting to include only those classified as, for example, "Christian" or "Childfree."

"Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live," Carson said in a statement Thursday. "Using a computer to limit a person's housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone's face." 

HUD alleges that Facebook unlawfully discriminates based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability, which are protected classes under the Fair Housing Act. Facebook restricts who can view housing-related ads on its platforms and across the internet, HUD said.

Carson's remarks in October came a few months after a FHCCI study of Marion County housing. Researchers found that in areas that were predominantly white, African-Americans encountered discrimination 76 percent of the time.

The audit uncovered what FHCCI called a "disturbingly common occurrence" in which persons of color were given incomplete or untrue information by housing providers. In a series of tests, whites, despite being slightly less qualified than corresponding African-Americans, were told of lower deposits, fees,and rent, or of move-in specials.

Last year, FHCCI filed a federal lawsuit against the Indianapolis operator of a company that advertised rent-to-buy homes. The firm, Casas, operated by Marshall Welton, was accused of saturating Spanish language media outlets with a message for "cheap houses - rent to buy" and funneling hundreds of Latino customers to it office only to find English-only documents.

The case is ongoing.

HUD's charge from Thursday will be heard by a federal administrative law judge unless any party chooses to have the case heard in federal district court.

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