Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Freedom to choose, except for real estate

The Internet is a wonderful tool to allow people to buy or sell merchandise. It reduces transaction costs immensely because they can find each other easily. And if one seller doesn't have what a buyer wants, it only costs a few seconds and a mouse click to find another buyer.

Except for real estate. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal for those who sell or rent housing to discriminate against buyers or renters. The law is so odious that the mere hinting you won't buy or rent to a person or family whose characteristics you don't approve, you will wind up in jail and/or pay a hefty fine.

For example, if a landlord were to advertise that he has a house that's "great for a stable family", that could be interpreted to mean gays are not welcome. Or if an ad pictured people enjoying a pool party, but the photo didn't show anyone from different minority groups, that could be a hidden message that whites are preferred. Anybody who sells or rents real estate must be constantly alerted to be sure he doesn't go afoul of this vague but aggressively enforced law.

Now, what has got the pro-fair housing's feathers in a ruffle is sellers who advertise on the Internet sites. One such site is Craigslist. Sometimes ads run by Craigslist violate laws forbidding seller preference--for example, one by a woman with an apartment to rent specifying that she wants a young, single female tenant. The Fair Housing Act specifically states that no discrimination is allowed, and that woman (and Craigslist) is flagrantly violating that law. And court decisions have thus far held that Internet sites are immune from liability for the speech of those who posted on them use.

The underlining principle that buyers and their lawyers forget is this: is there any harm if we delete the Fair Housing Act? If buyers don't buy real estate on account of some asinine excuse, that is their right. Why don't we give the same freedom to sellers? If a buyer doesn't buy real estate that you are selling, you just move along for another buyer.

Anyway, it is the concept of supply-and-demand. Most housing sellers don't turn away prospective customers. And if, for whatever reason, a landlord wants to rent to tenants with certain characteristics, that is no business of the government.

As for you who are really worried about some sellers who won't sell to certain buyers, just turn on your computer and look for a seller who will sell them. It won't be too difficult, and you will be erecting the valued principle of freedom to choose.

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