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Housing Discrimination: FAQs

What type of housing discrimination is illegal when it comes to property rentals?

The federal Fair Housing Act and the Fair Housing Amendment Acts (42 U.S. Code 3601-3619, 3631) and many state and local laws, prohibit a landlord from selecting tenants based on certain criteria. A landlord may not refuse to rent to a tenant for the following reasons:

  • Race or color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Disability or handicap, including physical and mental impairment
  • Sex, including sexual harassment
  • Familial status (includes protection for people with children under age 18 or pregnant women)

In addition, state and local housing discrimination laws may offer coverage beyond federal law, such as protection for sexual orientation, age, and marital status.

What kind of housing discrimination do the federal Fair Housing Acts prohibit?

A landlord must treat every tenant equally. Illegal discrimination occurs when the landlord:

  • Refuses to rent to members of a certain race
  • Denies the availability of a available rental dwelling or steers renters to a certain area based on race
  • Creates unreasonable restrictions on the number of people that may live in the rental unit
  • Includes preferences or limitations in a rental advertisement
  • Creates different terms or standards for certain tenants
  • Terminates a tenancy based on a discriminatory reason
  • Provides services or facilities only for certain tenants
  • Demands sexual favors or creates a sexually hostile environment
  • Refuses to make reasonable accommodations for a disabled tenant
  • Fails to stop another tenant from making discriminatory, harassing, or threatening comments to a person in a protected category

The Fair Housing Acts apply to any person that deals with tenants and prospective tenants, including real estate agents, property owners, landlords, and managers. Even if the property owner did not personally discriminate against tenants or prospective tenants, the landlord may still be liable for the civil rights violations of employees.

What property is exempt from the federal Fair Housing Acts?

The Fair Housing Acts do not apply to every rental property. Exempt property includes:

  • Senior housing: Housing qualifies for this exemption if 1) HUD has made a determination that the dwelling is designed and occupied by elderly residents under a local, state, or federal program; or 2) all residents are 62 or older; or 3) at least one person who is 55 years old or older resides in 80 percent of the occupied units and the public is made aware that the housing unit intends to provide senior housing to people 55 or older
  • Owner-occupied housing: An owner lives in a building with four or fewer units
  • Some owners of single family homes: A single family home is owned by a private person and rented without the use of a real estate broker or discriminatory advertising
  • Some housing owned by religious organizations and private clubs: Housing that limits occupancy to its members

Local and state housing discrimination laws may still apply to federally exempt property, however.

What are the legal reasons that a landlord can reject a prospective tenant?

A landlord must base the selection of tenants on pre-established and objective criteria. A landlord may reject prospective tenants based on a fair screening process that requires all tenants to undergo the same application process. A landlord may consider the following when screening a tenant:

  • Credit history
  • Income
  • History of nonpayment of rent
  • Prior bankruptcies
  • References
  • Some types of criminal convictions
  • Pets

How does a person lodge a housing discrimination complaint with HUD or a local or state agency?

A tenant or a prospective tenant can file a complaint with HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) if a possible violation of their rights occurred under the Fair Housing Acts. It is necessary to file the complaint within one year of the alleged discrimination. HUD will conduct an investigation to determine whether to dismiss the complaint or attempt to reach a "conciliation" agreement between the parties. If conciliation is unsuccessful, a judge will conduct an administrative hearing to determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred. If the court finds discrimination, it may issue an order of relief and grant the tenant damages.

Instead of having the case decided in an administrative hearing, the tenant or the landlord may choose to have the case litigated in Federal District Court by the Attorney General's office. A District Court can grant the tenant injunctive relief and damages.

Because state and local areas also have anti-discrimination laws, a tenant may file a complaint with the appropriate agency. Under state and local law, the statute of limitation for filing a complaint may be different from federal time limits. The same investigation and conciliation efforts that HUD uses usually occur in a state or local investigation as well.

Can a tenant or a prospective tenant sue the landlord for discrimination in federal or state court?

Within two years after an alleged violation occurs, a person may file a private lawsuit in federal or state court even if the discrimination led to a complaint with HUD. As long as a conciliation agreement did not occur or an administrative hearing did not commence, a court can preside over the case. A finding of discrimination may result in the tenant receiving actual damages, damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney fees.

Next Steps
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(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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