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Fair Housing Laws: Renters' Protection from Sexual Orientation Discrimination

The federal fair housing laws were originally enacted to outlaw landlord discrimination in the rental or purchase of homes. It achieves this by assuring that landlords cannot require the potential rental or buyer to give his or her background, aside from a financial history, to the landlord for consideration. The fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status.

Although most landlords are more interested in your rent payments, you may unfortunately encounter a landlord who discriminates against you when he or she finds out your sexual orientation. You could be told your rental application is denied, be told your lease contract has ended prematurely, or be given an eviction notice. If you find yourself in one of these situations, you may have options depending on the timing of the discriminatory act, the nature of the lease agreement and term, and what city and state you live in.

If the landlord denies your lease application

Unfortunately, there is still no protection afforded to GLBTQ members under the federal fair housing laws. Check your state's fair housing laws to see if there are any nondiscrimination laws regarding housing, however. Sometimes, even city ordinances have fair housing laws that protect GLBTQ persons from discrimination. These laws prohibit landlords from engaging in sexual orientation discrimination.

The following states, including Washington D.C., prohibit discrimination against homosexuals as part of their fair housing laws:

California

New Hampshire

Connecticut

New Jersey

Hawaii

New Mexico

Maryland

Rhode Island

Massachusetts

Vermont

Minnesota

Wisconsin

Additionally, the following cities have made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal: Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Seattle. Some places have fair housing laws that protect transgendered persons from renters' discrimination: California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and New York City. Until the federal government adds a protection for GLBTQ persons into its fair housing laws, however, there is not much you can do if you don't live in one of the mentioned cities or states and a landlord denies your rental application based on your sexual orientation.

If you already have a lease contract, and the landlord tries to end the lease contract prematurely

Although you may have limited options if your lease application is denied based on your sexual orientation, the story is different if you already have an active lease contract with the landlord. Under contract law, your lease agreement cannot be terminated before its end date. Of course, if you violate the terms of the lease agreement by not paying rent or breaking a no pet rule, then you have breached the lease contract and the landlord can evict you. You can also be evicted for breaking the law. But since most states no longer have laws against sodomy or fornication, you are not breaking any laws by engaging in such acts in the privacy of your own bedroom; thus, your landlord can not do anything about it.

There are many different clauses a landlord can put in a rental agreement. Most rental agreements say nothing about who you can share your bed with, or what types of sexual acts you must refrain from. In that case, sharing your bed with a partner or engaging in sexual acts in your own home would not violate any provision of your lease agreement. Simply carrying on a homosexual relationship would not be in breach of the lease, thus your landlord could not evict you.

If your landlord did, for some reason, include some provision in the lease agreement regarding bedroom partners or sex acts, and you engage in such activities, you have breached your lease contract and could be evicted. Without the breach of some provision of your lease agreement, however, a landlord who attempts to evict you solely on the grounds of your sexual orientation would have a hard time succeeding--especially if you live in one of the places that prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.

If a landlord ends your month-to-month rental contract

If you have a month-to-month lease agreement, your landlord may end this agreement without giving any cause, so long as they give you proper written notice (30 days in most states). Although they do not have to give you the reason, they are not allowed to end a lease agreement for discriminatory purposes.

If you live in one of the places that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and the landlord tells you the lease contract is being ended because of your sexual orientation, you may be able to stop the landlord from ending the lease agreement. This is option is only available to those who live in places with that protection, however. If you don't live in a city or state that protects you from sexual orientation discrimination, the landlord may end the month-to-month rental agreement for any reason.

If a landlord ends your rent controlled month-to month rental contract

Most ordinances regarding rent control do not allow terminating month-to-month lease agreements unless there has been a violation of the terms of the lease agreement. Of course, as mentioned previously, if you break the law the landlord could very easily end the lease agreement. Otherwise, you may be able to stop the landlord from ending your month-to-month lease agreement if you have rent control.

Landlord's right to freedom of religion

Courts vary on whether landlords may use their freedom of religion as a justification to discriminate against certain classes of tenants. For example, a court in Alaska ruled against the landlord and held that the landlord's freedom of religion did not justify the landlord's denial of housing, whereas a court in North Dakota found in favor of the landlord. Both of these cases involved heterosexual unmarried couples, though, so there is no telling what the courts may do when the tenants are homosexual.

What to do if you think you do have a claim against the landlord

The first thing you should do is try and talk with the landlord. Remember that you will be living in this person's unit, and will be subject to his or her rules in the rental agreement. Should you need some grace in your rent payment or maintenance or repairs done, a landlord you are friendly with may be more willing to work with you in a timely manner. If the landlord lives in or near the same building, keep in mind that you may be encountering him or her regularly, so an amicable approach may be best. If you live in one of the mentioned places that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, simply reminding your landlord of the laws may be all you need to do.

Notifying your local housing authority of the discrimination may work, too. Housing authorities are typically very efficient and rigorous about upholding housing laws and codes. Upon the filing of your complaint, the authority will typically conduct an investigation and give the landlord a certain amount of time to fix whatever violation the landlord has made.

This will only work in a location that protects you from the discrimination by law, however. Also consider that notifying the housing authority may anger your landlord, who could try and find some other legal reason to evict you. On the other hand, it is important that landlords are held accountable to the housing laws and codes, and that enjoy the full protection from discrimination you deserve under the local fair housing laws.

If talking to the landlord or housing authority does not help, consult a lawyer. You may have several legal remedies, including:

  • recovery of any out-of-pocket losses
  • an injunction (making the landlord do or stop doing something) prohibiting the unlawful practice
  • access to the housing that the landlord is denying you
  • damages for emotional distress
  • civil penalties or punitive damages
  • attorney's fees

Some courts have even gone so far as to make the landlord advertise in media outlets that are common to the group that they are discriminating against (such as a GLBTQ magazine or website). Many courts have ordered discriminating landlords to hang fair housing posters in their offices.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified civil rights attorney
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