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Housing Discrimination: FAQs

Saving up enough money to pay the deposit and first month's rent for an apartment takes a lot of work. When housing discrimination comes into play, such a basic human need as shelter can be nearly impossible to get. Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about housing discrimination.

What are fair housing laws, and why are they important?

Fair housing laws refer to regulations at both federal and state levels designed to ensure equal opportunity in housing and prevent discrimination. These laws prohibit housing providers from mistreating individuals based on protected classes. Protected classes include race, color, religion, national origin, and gender identity.

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act is commonly referred to as the Federal Fair Housing Act. Fair housing laws are essential because they uphold human rights and provide housing opportunities for everyone.

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

The federal Fair Housing Act, the Fair Housing Amendment Acts (42 U.S. Code 3601-3619, 3631), and many state laws and local laws prohibit a landlord from selecting tenants based on specific protected 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)

Also, state and local housing discrimination laws may offer coverage beyond federal law. Such as protection for sexual orientation, gender identity, age, and marital status. Local governments often have their fair housing laws and agencies that enforce them.

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 an 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 Act applies to any person who 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 Act does not apply to every rental property. Exempt property includes:

  • Senior housing: Housing qualifies for this exemption if HUD has made a determination that the dwelling is designed and occupied by elderly residents under a local, state, or federal program. Qualifications include, but are not limited to, the following:
    • All residents are 62 or older
    • At least one person who is 55 years old or older resides in 80 percent of the occupied units
    • The public gets notice 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 religious organizations and private clubs own housing: Housing that limits occupancy to its members.

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

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 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) if a possible violation of their rights occurs under the Fair Housing Act. It is necessary to file the complaint within one year of the alleged discrimination. HUD will investigate 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 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 differ from federal time limits. The same investigation and conciliation efforts that HUD uses also occur in a state or local investigation.

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

Within two years of an alleged violation, a person may file a private lawsuit in federal or state court. They can do so even if the discrimination has become a complaint with HUD. A court can preside over the case as long as a conciliation agreement hasn't occurred or an administrative hearing hasn't started. A finding of discrimination may result in the tenant receiving actual damages:

  • Damages for emotional distress
  • Punitive damages
  • Attorney fees

Are homeowners exempt from federal fair housing laws when renting out property?

The federal fair housing laws apply to the sale and rental of housing. Homeowners who rent out property are generally subject to federal fair housing laws. Some exemptions might apply if the homeowner is renting a limited number of units, or if the property is owner-occupied with four or fewer units.

Are there any housing opportunities designed for older people?

Yes, federal fair housing laws allow housing communities to be designated as housing for older people, where at least 80% of the occupied units must have at least one resident who is 55 years old or older. These communities are exempt from familial status protections.

Is it legal to discriminate against someone based on their source of income, such as a voucher?

No. Federal fair housing laws and many state laws prohibit discrimination based on a tenant's source of income, including housing security deposit vouchers.

Does housing discrimination occur in mortgage lending?

Yes, housing discrimination can occur in mortgage lending. Although lenders are prohibited from discriminating against applicants when providing mortgage loans, some lenders still practice discriminatory lending practices based on factors like:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Familial status
  • People with disabilities, if reasonable modifications aren't undertaken
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin

Are You a Victim of Housing Discrimination? Talk to an Attorney Today

Housing discrimination is a serious violation. It can result in fewer housing choices, unfair terms, or some other indignity. Yet, it often goes unreported. You can file a fair housing complaint if you believe you've faced housing discrimination and been denied human rights. If you're part of one of the protected classes and think you have been denied fair housing rights, take the initiative and talk to a civil rights attorney about your situation.

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