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Understanding The Federal Fair Housing Act for Landlords & Property Managers

Understanding the legal responsibilities associated with offering a rental is imperative. Landlords and property managers alike must be aware of the ins-and-outs of rental laws in their area as well as federal laws for fair housing and habitability.


Since ignorance of the law is bound to land you in a sticky legal situation, it’s vital to understand the civil rights protections established under the Federal Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) before you even accept applications.


What is The Fair Housing Act?


The Fair Housing Act is the set of laws associated with anti-discrimination laws for renters; it also applies to other real estate transactions (including buying and selling property). The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to refuse to rent to, negotiate with or discriminate against any person based on their inclusion in a protected class.


What do the Protected Classes Recognize Under The Fair Housing Act Include?


  • Race

  • Color

  • Religion

  • Sex

  • Familial Status

  • Handicap

  • National Origin

Who is Responsible for Enforcing The Fair Housing Act?


The Department of Housing and Urban Development (often referred to as HUD) is responsible for enforcing The Fair Housing Act.


According to HUD, under the Fair Housing Act, no one can take any of the following actions if those actions are based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap:


  • Refuse to rent or sell housing

  • Refuse to negotiate for housing

  • Make housing unavailable

  • Deny a dwelling

  • Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling

  • Provide different housing services or facilities

  • Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental

  • For-profit, persuade owners to sell or rent (blockbusting) or

  • Deny anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing.


Additionally, it’s not legal to:


  • Threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right

  • Advertise or make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap. (Note: This prohibition against discriminatory advertising applies to single-family and owner-occupied housing that is otherwise exempt from the Fair Housing Act.)  


Additional Protections Offered for Those Who Have a Disability:


If you or someone associated with you:


  • Have a physical or mental disability (including hearing, mobility and visual impairments, chronic alcoholism, chronic mental illness, AIDS, AIDS Related Complex and mental retardation) that substantially limits one or more major life activities

  • Have a record of such a disability or

  • Are regarded as having such a disability


A landlord CANNOT:


  • Refuse to let you make reasonable modifications to your dwelling or common use areas, at your expense, if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing. (Where reasonable, the landlord may permit changes only if you agree to restore the property to its original condition when you move.)

  • Refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing.


Examples of Fair Housing Discrimination:


Understanding the letter of the law, and understanding its everyday applications can be two different things, so here are some scenarios that could be considered violations of the Fair Housing Act.


Listing your property as “family-friendly” or “perfect for families” in an advertisement.


Why it could be a violation: A family-friendly property description can be discriminating towards familial status and applicants can reasonably assume that preference would be given to tenants who are a family.


Asking for verification of immigration or citizenship status.

Why it could be a violation: It is illegal to discriminate against national origin, and asking for a rental applicant to verify their citizenship would violate this right.


Requiring some renters to pay an additional security deposit, but not all renters.

Why it could be a violation: All renters need to be treated equally to ensure that nothing appears discriminatory. Even if you are requesting a high-security deposit because of a non-discriminatory reason, if the renter happens to belong to a protected class, they can file a legitimate claim against you.


Explaining to your renters that you attend the church down the street.

Why it could be a violation: Religion is a protected class, and a landlord who references their own religious preferences could cause a renter to feel like the landlord prefers tenants with similar religious beliefs.


Remember, these examples are not comprehensive, and these are just some everyday scenarios that could be seen as housing discrimination when it comes to rental properties. There are a few exceptions to the Fair Housing Act, including 55+ housing communities and renters who belong to a protected class but are a threat to the health or safety of others or who currently use illegal drugs.


Ignorance of the laws is not an acceptable excuse for unintentional violations. When in doubt, it’s important to seek legal advice. If you’re a part-time landlord, it may even be worth it to hire a property manager to navigate the rental process while being conscious of the Fair Housing Act.


How Can Renters File A Discrimination Claim?


Should a tenant feel that their civil rights are being violated under the Fair Housing Act, HUD is available to help. The Housing Discrimination Complaint Form is available for renters to complete online or download and return.  


HUD will ask to know the filer’s name and address, the name and address of the person the complaint is against, the address of the housing involved, a short description to the alleged violation, and the date(s) of the alleged violation.


HUD will investigate the claim, attempt a conciliation, determine if there is cause to the claim, and, if necessary, will conduct a court hearing.


Additional Advice for Landlords and Property Managers:


Any conversation you have with a potential tenant must stay focused on the applicant’s ability to pay rent on-time, take care of the property, and follow lease terms. Any other subject could potentially violate housing laws.


Property managers must be knowledgeable about fair housing laws at the federal, state and even local levels and be familiar with how their rental policies may impact protected groups under those laws.


To protect yourself from disparate impact claims, all housing providers must have supporting documentation that all applicants are treated exactly the same and a tenant was accepted or rejected based on legal screening criteria. Having a documented written tenant screening policy can assist landlords. By collecting all of this information, not only can property managers make an informed decision about prospective renters, but they can show in court that they had valid, legal, reasons to select one tenant over another.


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