Landlords are allowed to deny housing on the basis of legitimate business reasons. A few examples of this include credit history, income, references from past landlords, and past behavior, such as damaging property. Housing discrimination refers to a person being denied housing due to their membership to a protected class, and not for any legitimate business reasons.

Protected classes include:

  • Race;
  • National origin;
  • Color;
  • Religion;
  • Sex;
  • Age;
  • Disability, whether physical or mental; and
  • Pregnancy.

There are state and federal laws in place that make it illegal to deny someone housing based solely on the above mentioned characteristics. Biased treatment is unlawful during housing related activities, such as renting, buying, and lending. Additionally, it is prohibited to select tenants based on their familial status, such as having children, or their marital status.

Examples of housing discrimination could include:

  • A landlord requiring that an interracial couple utilize application criteria that is more burdensome than that required of other applicants;
  • A bank refuses to provide loan information to a person based on their protected class;
  • A real estate broker acting on behalf of a contractor publishes the availability of a newly built housing complex as being for white tenants only. In such cases, both the broker and the contractor would be engaging in discriminatory behavior;
  • A landlord advertising an apartment for sale and confirms with an inquiring couple, on the phone, that the unit is available. However, when the couple arrives to the unit thirty minutes later, and the landlord sees that the couple is interracial, they are told that the unit has since been rented; and
  • A potential renter wearing clothing associated with a particular religion visits a leasing office in which it is clearly stated that there are units available, only to be told that the signage is incorrect.

What Is the Fair Housing Act, and Are there Housing Exceptions Under the Federal Housing Act?

As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of dwellings. This extends to other housing related activities including the dissemination of false information about the availability of housing.

Examples of dissemination of false information include incorrectly stating that there are no units available, or suggesting that people who are looking to buy in one area instead buy in another based on their race. Upon its passing, its central objective was to prohibit race discrimination in the sales and renting of housing. However, it has since extended to cover all protected classes.

The FHA applies to the following circumstances:

  • Selling or renting real estate;
  • Advertising real estate;
  • Providing financial assistance for buyers or renters of real estate;
  • Brokering or appraising real estate;
  • Participating in real estate organizations;
  • Intimidating, coercing, or threatening others in regards to their purchase or rental; and
  • Interfering with a person’s right of enjoyment and use of housing rights based on discriminatory reasons.

Additionally, the Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to:

  • Engage in mortgage lending discrimination;
  • Harass people based on their protected class;
  • Interfere with anyone exercising their FHA rights; and
  • Retaliate against someone who has filed a fair housing complaint, or assists in the investigation of a fair housing complaint.

There are four major exceptions to the Fair Housing Act:

  1. Single family homes, as long as:
    • The home is also rented or sold by the owner;
    • The owner does not own more than three homes at a time;
    • The advertising for the sale or rental was not discriminatory; and
    • The owner did not use a real estate or broker
  2. Rooms or units in a building with a maximum of four units, as long as the owner is living in one of those units;
  3. Rooms or units owned either directly or indirectly by a religious organization. This is true only if preference is only given on the basis of that membership, and membership in that religion is not restricted by race, color, or nationality; and
  4. Rooms or units owned by a private organization for non-commercial use, as long as preference is only given on the basis of membership to that organization and is not restricted by race, color, or nationality

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Been Unlawfully Denied Housing?

If you feel you have been discriminated against, it is important that you begin by filing a complaint with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (“FHEO”). The Office is part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”). Your complaint should include the facts that prove why you believe you were violated. The complaint will be reviewed by the HUD and may require a response on the part of the accused party before the FHEO conducts an investigation. Next, they will determine whether there is enough evidence to establish that a violation did indeed occur.

Complaints must be filed within one year of the last date of the alleged discrimination. Following an investigation, the FHEO will issue its findings as to whether there is a reasonable cause to find a violation has occurred. If the investigation does indeed find cause, the HUD or the Department of Justice will take legal action against the violator.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Housing Discrimination Laws?

Although an attorney is not required to file a complaint with HUD, you may want to consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable real estate attorney who specializes in housing discrimination. The attorney can assist you in pursuing a lawsuit against the violator. Additionally, they can represent you in a court of law as needed.