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Sex-for-Rent Ads Ignite Fair-Housing Advocates 

The pitch: Free housing.

The catch: It's only for "friends with benefits."

Despite a campaign by local fair-housing watchdogs to stop them, online classified ads in which lonely men offer cheap housing to attractive women persist in Richmond.

Federal anti-discrimination laws ban housing providers from stating a preference for renters based on age, gender or any of the other "protected classes." Violators can face a wide range of penalties levied by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Yet the anything-goes nature of the Internet, plus one high-profile court ruling, allow these ads to exist, says Amy Nelson, director for systemic investigations and enforcement for Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, known as Home.

"I have a house in the West End and several empty rooms," reads one June ad on Craigslist of Richmond. "I am a good looking guy in shape and likes to be clean, so [I'd] like a cute female with similar qualities that needs a place."

"Free Housing offered to the right Women," reads another. "Room mate with benefits type deal."

Others don't bother with subterfuge. "I am a divorced mature man who has more space than needed," reads a January 2010 ad posted to Craigslist Richmond. "Want young woman 19 to 45 who needs a nice place and doesn't mind helping 'around the house' and being a good friend, however intimate you want (or not)."

That ad was one of 50 investigated by the housing group last year. Some of the men who posted them said they were unaware of the law and that they'd been placing similar ads for years, Nelson says.

The women who answer the ads deserve consideration, Nelson says. "The housing market is shrinking," she says. "And you have a lot of people whose housing options may be limited by bad credit, or criminal history or just poverty. You have to look at it from their perspective and ask yourself, 'How desperate am I, and what would I do to have a roof over my head?'"

Following the investigation, the housing-equality group made more than 25 complaints against local would-be landlords to federal housing authorities. Most were settled before the penalty phase, Nelson says.

The group continues to post ads on Craigslist informing users that it's illegal to offer discounted rent to young women with sexual contact the implied medium of exchange. But a 2008 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals found that online classified websites such as Craigslist cannot be held be held liable for content posted by their users.

The website does post a banner disclaimer alerting users that stating a discriminatory preference is illegal. Messages left with the public-relations company that handles inquiries from reporters for Craigslist weren't returned.

In lieu of a change in the legislation, Nelson says the only way to address the issue is by investigating individual posters. "We certainly feel that Internet sites should at the very least be held to the same standards as everyone else."

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