Tenants' Rights and Fair Housing Laws
Every tenant and prospective tenant has a right to the protection of housing discrimination laws. Fair housing laws ban discrimination in renting, selling, or financing real property. Federal, state, and local laws ensure all members of society enjoy an equal opportunity for housing.
Housing discrimination exists when any party to a real estate transaction makes unequal housing decisions based on protected characteristics. The parties are not limited to a landlord or property owner. Parties include real estate professionals, mortgage lenders, and appraisers. Prospective homeowners and renters can experience housing discrimination.
Housing Discrimination History
Before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 passed Congress, many real estate industry professionals engaged in legal discriminatory practices. These practices distorted the housing market and denied fundamental human rights.
These practices included:
- Redlining: When real estate agents, housing providers, and mortgage lenders refuse to service protected class members. Redlining was part of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) Code of Ethics from 1924-1974.
- Blockbusting: When a real estate brokerage or agent uses the threat of minority "encroachment" to induce homeowners to sell their family houses. These homes were often sold at a loss and later resold at an inflated price.
Fair Housing Laws
Federal, state, and local governments each have fair housing laws. Federal fair housing laws include the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The federal Fair Housing Act bans housing discrimination based on:
- National origin
- Familial status (it's illegal to discriminate against children and pregnant women)
- Physical and mental disability (including alcoholism and past drug addiction)
- Sexual orientation and gender identity
State and Local Fair Housing Laws
States and cities have similar fair housing laws that may prohibit other kinds of discrimination. That can include discrimination for marital status and sexual orientation.
Examples of Housing Discrimination
Anti-discrimination laws are continuously evolving to address new forms of discrimination. These include discrimination against people with disabilities and those with alternate sources of income.
The Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990. Disability is one protected characteristic under the Fair Housing Act. Housing providers and landlords must make reasonable accommodations for tenants and renters. Reasonableness in this context depends on the disability.
Disabled tenants can make reasonable modifications to their rental units at their expense. Examples of reasonable modifications include grab bars in the bathroom.
Source of Income
Housing providers cannot discriminate against prospective tenants based on their source of income. Some tenants use vouchers or Social Security Disability Income. Landlords cannot ask for extra verification of a disability or demand a higher security deposit based on their use of a voucher or SSDI.
Federal housing laws prohibit a variety of discriminatory conduct. The following is a list of protections under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, or the Fair Housing Act of 1968:
- Housing providers cannot use a different set of rules for assessing protected class applicants.
- Housing providers may not refuse to rent to people in a protected class.
- Housing providers cannot provide different services or facilities to tenants in a protected class.
- Housing providers cannot require a larger deposit from protected class members.
- Housing providers cannot end a tenancy for a discriminatory reason.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) does not apply to the following:
- Owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units
- Single-family homes rented without a real estate broker
- Religious organizations renting noncommercial housing
- Housing for older persons
Housing providers for older persons can refuse to rent to families with children.
Fair Housing Act Violations
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development enforces violations of the Fair Housing Act. Anyone who suspects they were subject to housing discrimination can submit a complaint to HUD. HUD enforces violations of the Fair Housing Act.
Filing a complaint is the first step in the process. After receiving a housing discrimination complaint, HUD starts an investigation. If the investigation uncovers discrimination based on a protected characteristic, HUD will issue a "Determination of Reasonable Cause and a Charge of Discrimination." The parties then have 20 days to decide to appear before a Federal District Court Judge or a HUD Administrative Law Judge.
Get Legal Help
Fair housing laws are complex. If you have experienced discriminatory practices in housing, speak to an experienced real estate attorney. They can help you understand your housing rights.
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