The Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people engaging in housing-related activities, such as buying or renting a home, obtaining a mortgage, or requesting housing assistance. 

In general, housing discrimination occurs when an individual or entity refuses to help a buyer or renter secure housing because of their race, sex, religion, origin, family status, or disability. For instance, if a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to someone based on their religion or a bank imposes different terms on a mortgage loan for people of a certain sex, then these would be examples of housing discrimination. 

The FHA is not the only law that protects citizens from housing discrimination. Many states have enacted statutes that prevent such conduct from occurring as well. Specifically, in California, there are two state laws that primarily govern housing discrimination: The Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and The Unruh Civil Rights Act (the “Unruh Act”). Both laws are enforced by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”). 

The FEHA is similar to the FHA in that it prohibits discrimination against persons in protected categories who are partaking in housing activities (e.g., looking for an apartment). Unlike the FHA, however, the FEHA also covers employment discrimination. 

On the other hand, the Unruh Act specifically prevents business establishments from discriminating against protected groups of people. This includes establishments like hotels and businesses that provide housing and other public accommodations. 

Some differences between the Unruh Act and FEHA are the types of landlords covered, the kinds of damages a person can recover, and each has a separate statute of limitations for how long a person has to file a lawsuit. 

When Do California’s Unlawful Discrimination Laws Apply?

California fair housing laws may apply to various scenarios that indicate a person is being discriminated against for housing purposes. 

For example, one category that is protected from discrimination under California fair housing laws is “source of income”. Thus, if a landlord advertises that a person “must have a job” in order to rent a specific apartment or refuses to rent to persons receiving public assistance, then this will be considered an act of unlawful housing discrimination. 

Marital status restrictions are another sign that a landlord may be discriminating against a person. For instance, if a spouse moves out and the landlord terminates the lease for solely this reason, or if a landlord requires an unmarried couple to prove they have a joint bank account or are in a long-term relationship. This behavior is not allowed under California fair housing laws.

Specifically, under the Unruh Act, it is illegal for hotels to charge service fees only to guests of a certain race and not others staying at the hotel. It is also illegal under the Unruh Act to deny housing because of a person’s sexual orientation. 

Essentially, any housing related situation where it appears a party may be discriminating against a person trying to rent, buy, or obtain financing for a house or apartment, may be grounds for a lawsuit if no other legitimate reason for the refusal applies. 

What is the Process for Filing a Housing Discrimination Complaint in California?

In order to obtain legal remedies for housing discrimination in California, a victim can either file a complaint directly in civil court or with the DFEH. If a person chooses to immediately sue in civil court, it may be in their best interest to speak with a local attorney. An attorney can assist with preparing and filing a case, will know which laws may affect the lawsuit, and can instruct them in which courthouse to file their complaint.

Alternatively, if a victim decides to file a complaint with the DFEH, then they must follow these next steps:

  • First, they should visit the website for DFEH to obtain information, the application, and other materials to file a complaint. A housing discrimination complaint application can be filed either online, in-person, or by mail. 
  • DFEH will then investigate the victim’s complaint. During the investigation, a complaint will be served on the offending party and potentially to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) if it falls within its jurisdiction. The landlord must respond to the complaint and may be able to resolve the case at this stage. Also, if the DFEH concludes no violation has occurred, then it will close the case.
  • However, if DFEH does find that a party violated the law, then they will schedule a mediation or conciliation conference in which it will present evidence that supports the notion that a violation occurred. Additionally, during this conference, a discussion regarding how to resolve the complaint will also be held. 
  • Finally, if the parties fail to resolve the issue at the conference, then DFEH will litigate the case in civil court. 

Additionally, a person may choose to file an administrative complaint with the HUD. This process will generally entail the same steps as the ones for filing a complaint with the DFEH. However, HUD provides special treatment in two specific scenarios. The first is if HUD believes that a court must resolve the issue quickly, then HUD will immediately refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for a temporary or permanent injunction.

The second is if the violation involves illegal zoning or land use, then HUD will also refer the case to the DOJ, but this time for civil prosecution. This can happen in situations where a person or entity repeatedly engages in unlawful acts. 

Finally, it should be noted that regardless of whether the victim decides to file a lawsuit or with one of the above government agencies, they must abide by the statute of limitations provided for each or else they may lose the opportunity to recover damages. 

Are There Any Remedies for a Housing Discrimination Incident?

As with other types of claims, legal remedies may be available for victims of housing discrimination. These may include:

  • Monetary damages;
  • Damages for emotional distress;
  • Punitive damages;
  • Permission to rent or buy house initially denied;
  • An injunction to stop discriminatory practices or policies; and/or
  • Attorneys’ fees. 

Additionally, if proven, persons or businesses who repeatedly violate housing discrimination laws can expect to receive punitive damages and civil fines costing upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Should I Consult an Attorney for Help with California Housing Discrimination Claims?

If you believe that your housing rights are being violated, then you may want to consult a California real estate attorney for further legal assistance; preferably, one who has experience with housing discrimination issues.

Your attorney will be able to determine whether your landlord and/or management company is in compliance with all federal and California state housing regulations. Your attorney can also discuss whether your rights were in fact violated, and if so, can advise you on the best course of legal action to take to help you resolve your matter.

Additionally, it is strongly recommended that you immediately contact an attorney if a broker or lender requests any unusual information from you, such as the race or religion of other persons living at your residence.