Housing discrimination occurs when a person is subjected to an unequal housing decision based on a protected characteristic, such as race, sex or disability. There are state and federal laws that make this kind of biased treatment unlawful during housing related activities, such as renting, buying and lending.

What is the Fair Housing Act?

There are a number of federal housing anti-discrimination laws, including the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA applies to persons who are involved in housing decisions, including landlords, sellers, real estate brokers, lenders, appraisers, contractors, and others. It prohibits those persons from selling or renting housing based on race, sex, disability, color, religion, familial status, or national origin.

In addition to addressing sales and rentals, the FHA also makes it illegal to engage in mortgage lending discrimination, harass people on the bases of the above characteristics, interfere with a person exercising their rights under the FHA, and retaliate against someone who files a fair housing complaint or assists in the investigation of one. It is also unlawful to utilize discriminatory advertising or marketing practices.

Are there Housing Exceptions Under the Federal Housing Act?

The FHA applies to most housing, though the following may be exempted in limited circumstances:

  • Owner-occupied buildings with less than four units;
  • Single-family houses sold or rented without the assistance of an agent; and
  • Housing operated by limited religious organizations and private clubs with limited occupancy.

You should consult with an attorney to determine whether your particular circumstances provide you with an exemption under the FHA to avoid a violation.

What are Some Examples of Housing Discrimination?

If you are a landlord who requires that an interracial couple utilize application criteria, such as a credit check or application fee, that is more burdensome than is required from other applicants, you may be in violation of the FHA.

Let’s also consider the scenario where the same interracial couple is purchasing a home and the bank they have selected refuses to provide loan information because of their racial makeup.

The bank in that scenario may also have acted unlawfully under the FHA. In another instance, a real estate broker acting on behalf of a contractor publishes the availability of newly built housing in a whites-only complex. The real estate broker and the contractor may have violated the FHA through such discriminatory advertisement.

Housing discrimination can occur in a variety of circumstances, but in many instances, the discrimination is more subtle. Consider this example: A landlord who has advertised an apartment for sale confirms with the the inquiring couple on the phone that the unit is available. The interracial couple visits the unit thirty minutes later and is told that the apartment has since been rented.

In another example, a potential renter wearing clothing associated with a particular religion walks into the leasing office of an apartment complex with an “available units” sign and is told that the sign is incorrect. It is difficult to determine based on that interaction alone whether religious discrimination has occurred.

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

You can contact the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to file a complaint if you believe you have been the victim of unlawful housing practices. You can also file a lawsuit in court.

Anyone may file a complaint at no cost with HUD by telephone, mail or online. Your complaint, which should include a short description of the facts that show why you believe your rights were violated, will be reviewed and HUD may require the alleged violator to respond to the complaint. The FHEO may investigate the matter further and will then determine whether there is sufficient evidence to establish that a violation has occurred.

There are deadlines for filing your complaint. For example, you must file your complaint “within one year of the last date of the alleged discrimination” under the FHA. Following its investigation, FHEO will issue findings as to whether there is reasonable cause to find a violation has occurred. If the investigation finds cause, HUD or the Department of Justice will take legal action to enforce the law.

Should I Consult a Lawyer if I Am Facing Issues with Housing Discrimination?

If you have been the victim of housing discrimination, you may file a complaint with HUD to cure the violation. An attorney is not required during this process, but you may find it helpful to hire a real estate attorney who specializes in housing discrimination if you wish to consider other options or to pursue a lawsuit against the person who discriminated against you.

If you are a landlord, contractor, real estate broker or other person involved in housing decisions and are uncertain whether your actions constitute a violation of a housing law, you may benefit from consulting with an attorney.