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Fair Housing Laws, Complaints, and Lawsuits

Whether you are a landlord or a tenant, you should know the basics of federal fair housing laws and state anti-discrimination statutes. Prospective tenants should understand their rights as they seek rental housing. Landlords should understand fair housing laws to avoid potential lawsuits.

This FindLaw article explores housing discrimination and fair housing laws.

Housing Discrimination

Landlords who refuse to rent based on race or another protected characteristic are likely in violation of housing discrimination laws. These laws ensure all Americans have equal opportunities in housing. This includes affordable housing. As the cost of living increases, more individuals and families struggle to find affordable housing.

Affordable housing includes local programs designed to increase the number of homeowners. It also covers apartment complexes owned by big realty groups or management companies. Often, these providers must set aside a percentage of apartments in exchange for a tax subsidy.

Fair Housing Laws

Most fair housing laws ensure the fair housing rights of protected class members. Protected classes include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Familial status

Historically, members of these protected classes faced discrimination from housing providers who would deny them housing based on arbitrary factors. Access to housing is a fundamental human rights issue. No one should deny a prospective renter a housing opportunity because of who they are.

Federal Fair Housing Laws

The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) is not the only federal legislation that addresses housing discrimination. The FHA prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings on account of a protected characteristic.

An example of housing discrimination in this context includes refusing to rent to a family with children.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. An example is denying the applications of African American and Latino families with housing vouchers.

Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability in these areas:

  • Employment
  • State and local government
  • Public accommodations
  • Commercial facilities
  • Transportation
  • Telecommunications

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces Title II disability discrimination in public and private housing, housing aid, and housing referrals.

Refusing to rent to a person with a disability because of the reasonable accommodations they need is a fair housing violation. Landlords should allow tenants to pay for reasonable modifications under the ADA. Unlawful source-of-income requests of prospective tenants are also likely fair housing violations.

Age Discrimination Act

The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 protects older Americans from discrimination based on age in programs receiving federal aid. The areas covered under the Age Discrimination Act include:

  • Educational programs
  • Health care services
  • Housing
  • Welfare
  • Food stamps
  • Rehabilitation programs

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforce these federal laws. They apply to property owners, real estate agents, and other real estate professionals.

Violations of the Fair Housing Act

Unlawful source-of-income requests are one method of housing discrimination. A mortgage lender who requests specific information about a prospective tenant's disability may violate the FHA. Denying the applications of minority families with housing vouchers may also constitute discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Landlords and property owners who engage in discriminatory eviction practices are also subject to fair housing laws.

Filing a Complaint

Anyone who believes they were subject to housing discrimination may file a discrimination complaint with HUD. After the fair housing complaint's filing, HUD investigates the allegations. If the agency determines the allegations are true, it will issue a determination of probable cause. Complainants then have 20 days to decide whether to pursue their case before a federal district court judge, in front of a HUD administrative judge, or through the voluntary conciliation process.

The Conciliation Process

In the voluntary conciliation process, the parties, including HUD, reach a mutually satisfying agreement. The conciliation process usually ends with signatures on a conciliation agreement or a voluntary agreement.

Filing a Lawsuit

If the complainants choose to pursue their case in the federal court system, HUD transfers the case to the DOJ. The Justice Department will then file a federal lawsuit on the complainants' behalf. A jury may impose punitive damages, civil penalties, and attorney fees to the plaintiff.

Fair Housing Organizations

Fair housing organizations (FHOs) are proactive in eliminating housing discrimination. FHOs are nonprofits working to end discrimination in housing. One way they work toward this goal is through testing. The testing process involves testers who attempt to rent or buy housing to uncover violations of fair housing laws. FHOs also provide advocacy on the federal, state, and local levels.

Local Fair Housing Laws

Many states have fair housing laws. Cities and counties may have fair housing ordinances. The Florida Department of Human Relations, for example, enforces state fair housing laws in the Sunshine State. State fair housing laws often mirror federal protections with more protections, including the following:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Personal appearance
  • Political affiliation

Landlords, property managers, and tenants should understand how state law affects their rights. Most states have offices dedicated to enforcing state fair housing laws. Check with your state's office for questions about local fair housing matters.

Get Help

Fair housing laws are complex, and violations of these laws are costly. Noncompliance can expose landlords and property owners to liability. A qualified real estate attorney can give you sound advice on your situation. They can also help you understand fair housing laws. Speak to an experienced real estate attorney in your area today.

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