Whether you are a tenant or a landlord, it is crucial to be aware of Fair Housing laws and how you can be affected by violations resulting from discrimination and unlawful practices.
It’s best to familiarize yourself also with the penalties and processes that occur should a violation of an individual’s right to equal and fair housing opportunities arise.
Continue reading to learn more about these policies and fair housing violations and examples of what you should and shouldn’t do to avoid legal trouble.
What Is the Fair Housing Act (FHA)?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) forbids any discriminatory practices by real estate companies, landlords, municipalities, banks, homeowner’s insurance companies, lending institutions, and any other direct or indirect provider of housing and housing opportunities.
This act ensures that someone cannot get denied adequate and affordable housing based on:
- Familial status
- National origin
Federally-assisted housing (Section 8 and other vouchers) is also afforded additional protection.
The FHA laws protect people from becoming victims of discrimination when trying to get a mortgage, seek assistance to obtain a home, purchase a home, or engage in any other activities related to getting a home.
Why Is Fair Housing Important?
The FHA is important because it is a thorough set of guidelines that tries to address the disenfranchisement of certain groups of people who have already been subjected to unfair practices from a historical standpoint.
This act was created as a result of the Civil Rights movement to support the African American community who were denied housing.
Certain people such as single mothers, people of color, disabled persons, various religions and nationalities, LGBTQIA members, women, and so on are defined and protected under fair housing law.
This act empowers these people so that they may bargain and advocate for themselves in situations where they get denied the ability to rent, buy, borrow money, or mortgage a home.
What Is Protected Under the Fair Housing Act?
Most types of housing are already covered under the FHA.
However, there are a few exemptions.
- Buildings with four units or less occupied by the owner
- A single-family home that the owner rented or sold without the assistance of a real estate agent
- Housing properties controlled by private clubs and religious organizations that only allow occupancy to members are all held to different standards
Seniors also find these statutes to be extremely important because they may need protection against discrimination when they have to consider transitioning from their homes due to a disability.
It may be better for them to find living arrangements that allow them to function comfortably according to their new needs.
The laws under the FHA forbid a housing provider from refusing to rent or sell to someone that is disabled.
They also have to make modifications and reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals to live with the same level of access and comfort as other non-disabled tenants.
The Fair Housing Act is crucial to ensure that seniors can access appropriate and affordable housing with the necessary services they require in their private space instead of an institution like a nursing home.
Common Fair Housing Concerns
Common fair housing concerns include:
- Unlawful evictions
- Refusal to provide a reasonable accommodation or modification
- Unfair treatment of families with children
- Illegal occupancy standards
- Landlord responsibilities
- Sexual harassment
Examples of these concerns:
- Evicting someone because they have many children
- Refusing to allow a service animal because of a “no pets” policy
- Discouraging someone to rent a unit on the top floor of a building because they have a disability
- Refusing to rent to someone because of pregnancy
- Not allowing at least two persons in one room where there is no other ordinance that dictates a specified limit
- Locking someone out of their home because they are late with the rent payment
- Requiring sexual favors for more time to pay past-due rent
What Are Fair Housing Violations?
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vows to relentlessly pursue justice for victims of housing discrimination by penalizing housing providers that refuse to sell or rent homes to a member of the protected categories.
What Are Examples of Violations to the Fair Housing Act?
Fair housing violations entail that a rental property has denied someone from obtaining safe and affordable housing.
Here are the examples:
- Not offering to house people from protected groups
- Refusing to bargain for the rental, lease, or sale of housing
- Stating that a housing property cannot be inspected, rented, or sold, then it is available
- Denying someone of homeowner’s insurance or a home loan for reasons unrelated to financial stability or other permissible qualifications
- Refusing to modify a property within reason to accommodate a disabled person when necessary
- Retaliating against someone that filed a complaint
- Offer lower-quality conditions, terms, services, and facilities to every tenant at a housing property
What Discrimination Looks Like
Discrimination in housing means that the entity in charge of renting, selling, or buying a property acts unlawfully toward the person attempting to buy, rent, or sell a property because they are members of a protected group.
Fair housing violations examples include:
- Race: Landlords cannot have signs prohibiting a certain race from applying, nor can they reject all applicants of the same race.
- Religion: An apartment cannot have an ad that welcomes members of a particular religion because this is a violation of federal law. Applicants can reasonably assume that members of that religion are given preferential treatment.
- National Origin: A landlord or agency cannot request immigration papers or proof of citizenship from applicants of a specific ethnicity and not others.
- Familial Status or Age: Though many landlords don’t prefer to rent to a potential tenant if they have children (due to the possible noise and damages that could occur), it is unlawful to charge this renter more than others without children.
- Disability: A landlord cannot forbid a potential tenant because they use a wheelchair.
What Are the Penalties for Violating the Fair Housing Act?
The penalties for violating the statutes of the Fair Housing Act can vary in nature, and it depends on where the case goes (HUD, court, etc.).
The penalties could include punitive damages, fines, and court/attorney fees.
These consequences are why it is essential to follow a clear and consistent application and screening process with every tenant and keep traceable records.
Who Conducts an Investigation?
Investigations into FHA violations start at the United State Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as it is their job to enforce these policies.
The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity within the HUD receives and investigates any complaints.
The first step to initiating the process is to file a complaint with this division.
Filing a Complaint
In order to successfully bring a case where one alleges that there was intentional discrimination or disparate treatment under the Fair Housing Act, is described as the steps are as follows:
- “First, the plaintiff (or HUD in an administrative action) must show that the criminal background policy resulted in a disparate impact because of the plaintiff’s inclusion in a protected class. The plaintiff may present evidence to prove that the policy actually or predictably results in a disparate impact.
- Second, the burden shifts to the housing provider to show that its criminal background policy is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, and nondiscriminatory interest and that the policy actually achieves this interest. Many housing providers assert the safety of other residents and property as their reason for using criminal background policies, but the policy and its efficacy must be proven through reliable evidence.
Third, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the interest could be served by another policy that has a less discriminatory effect.”- PracticalLaw
Here are the basic statutes related to discrimination complaints against an entity or individual:
How Does a Person File a Complaint of Housing Discrimination?
An individual can file a fair housing complaint by calling any of the ten FHEO offices throughout different regions in the country.
It is also possible to contact a state or local agency that has received approval from HUD to process complaints.
The other option is to file a complaint form which comes in various languages.
Anyone can submit this form by email, mail, online, or in person at one of the regional offices.
What Are the Time Limits for Filing a Complaint of Housing Discrimination?
If someone believes they have been denied housing for reasons of discrimination, they have one year to file a complaint regarding the alleged act.
What Remedies Are Available to Persons Who File Complaints of Housing Discrimination?
The state law dictates the following remedies for someone that has been the target of housing discrimination:
- Reimbursement for any out-of-pocket costs, including attorney’s fees
- A judicial order that prohibits someone from continuing an illegal practice, such as housing discrimination policies
- Access to housing opportunities that you previously denied
- Compensation for emotional distress
- Punitive damages or civil penalties
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Guidance:
HUD has provided its advice when bringing a disparate treatment claim based on criminal background checks. The following considerations are:
- “A policy that excludes applicants because of prior arrests without convictions will not satisfy a housing provider’s burden that the policy is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.
- The burden is on the housing provider to prove that a criminal history policy relating to specific types of convictions is necessary to serve its substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.
- A blanket prohibition on persons with criminal convictions will not satisfy the housing provider’s burden without considering:
- when the conviction occurred;
- what the underlying conduct was; or
- the applicant’s conduct since the conviction.
- A criminal background policy must distinguish between conduct that poses a risk to other residents and property and conduct that does not.
- The court should take into account the nature and severity of the applicant’s conviction and the amount of time that has passed since the criminal conduct occurred when determining if the housing provider satisfies its burden.
- Broad categorical exclusions are more likely to be discriminatory than individual fact-specific assessments that consider relevant mitigating information beyond what is contained in a criminal record.” – PracticalLaw
Please consult HUD’s full guidance here.
Advice for Landlords and Property Managers
Remember that the Fair Housing Act prohibits a landlord from discriminating against renters based on race, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability.
However, the laws may protect additional groups under the state and local jurisdictions where your property is located.
This includes but is not limited to age, citizenship, veteran status, sexual orientation, genetic makeup, gender identity, source of income, criminal history, and more.
With that in mind, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with all housing laws.
How Can Landlords and Property Managers Avoid Violating the Fair Housing Act?
A landlord has to adhere to every local, state, and federal law applicable to their property, including housing discrimination policies.
The easiest and safest way to steer clear of any breach of fair housing rights is to treat every tenant and applicant the same.
Fair Housing and Tenant Screening Tips
Of course, it is necessary to comprehensively screen potential tenants, but you have to be aware of Fair Housing legislation.
Otherwise, you might be unaware that certain questions are illegal to ask a renter.
Which Questions Should You Avoid When Screening Tenants?
1. How old are you?
You cannot choose whether you want to rent to someone based on their age.
It is forbidden under many jurisdictions unless it is due to eligibility within a senior living community.
2. Do you plan on having kids?
While you are allowed to ask how many people will live in the unit, you cannot ask someone about their plans to have children.
3. Are you disabled?
You are not allowed to suggest a certain unit to a disabled tenant because you think it suits them better.
4. Are you married?
There is no reason to ask someone whether they are married because familial status is a protected category under fair housing law.
5. Which church do you attend?
It’s better not to ask any questions related to religion, even to strike up a casual conversation, as it could be misconstrued.
6. What country were you born in?
You cannot ask a tenant any questions regarding their ethnicity, as this information cannot get used to assess renting eligibility.
Which Questions Should You Ask When Screening Tenants?
It’s best to have questions on hand to fully prepare for any screening.
Some of the most common include:
- Can you pay the rent in full and on time each month?
- Will you be a respectful tenant and neighbor?
- Do you agree to a background, credit, and references check?
- How much do you make per year?
- How long have you lived at your current address?
All individuals must have a right to equal housing opportunities, regardless of their race, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, or if they have disability.
Hopefully, these fair housing violation examples have made that clear.
There is a difference between screening for trustworthy tenants and asking questions that should not affect a person’s ability to obtain housing.
If you are a landlord, please review the federal, state, and local statutes for your area to avoid any violations or fair housing concerns.