The Basics of the Fair Housing Act for Landlords and Others

Everything Renters, Landlords, and Homeowners Need to Know

Apartment for Rent Sign
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Everyone who applies for housing has the right to be treated equally. The Fair Housing Act was enacted by congress with the goal of advising landlords, lenders, buyers, and renters of the housing practices that could be considered discriminatory. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), examples of discriminatory practices include: imposing different prices for the sale or rental of a dwelling; delaying or failing to preform of maintenance or repairs for certain renters; or limiting privileges, services, or facilities of a dwelling based on a person's gender, nationality, or racial characteristics.

What Is the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act is a law created to help limit discriminatory practices related to landlords, tenants, and housing. The act was created on the principle that every American should have an equal opportunity to seek a place to live, without being afraid of discrimination due to factors outside their control.

The Fair Housing Act's Creation

Attempts at fair housing in America have been around since the mid-1800s, but it was not until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that any real change took place. The Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were two of the first attempts to address discrimination. The real groundbreaking legislation, however, was the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which was established one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in an article for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations":

“The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle. As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards' code of ethics warned that 'a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood ... any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.' A 1943 brochure specified that such potential undesirables might include madams, bootleggers, gangsters, and 'a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.'"

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that most of the mortgage lending cases brought under the Fair Housing Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act involve claims of discrimination based upon race.

Who Is Protected by the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on the follow seven factors:

  1. Color
  2. Disability
  3. Familial status (i.e., having children under 18 in a household, including pregnant women) 
  4. National origin
  5. Race
  6. Religion
  7. Sex

How the Act Combats Housing Discrimination

The Fair Housing Act has a three-part approach to ending discrimination against the protected classes in any of the following ways:

1. Home Renting and Selling

  • Refusing to rent housing, sell housing, or negotiate for housing
  • Making housing unavailable or lying about the availability of housing
  • Denying housing
  • Establishing different terms or conditions in home selling or renting
  • Providing different housing accommodations or amenities
  • Blockbusting (convincing property owners to sell cheaply because of the fear of racial, religious, or other minorities moving into the neighborhood)
  • Denying participation in housing-related services such as a multiple listing service

2. Mortgage Lending

  • Refusing to make or purchase a mortgage loan
  • Setting different terms or conditions on the loan, such as interest rates or fees
  • Setting different requirements for purchasing a loan
  • Refusing to make information about the loan available
  • Using discriminatory practices in property appraising

3. Other Illegal Activities

  • Making discriminatory statements or advertise your property indicating a preference for a person with a certain background or excluding a protected class. This applies to those who are otherwise exempt from the Fair Housing Act, such as owner-occupied four-unit homes.
  • Threatening or interfering with anyone’s fair housing rights

Exemption From the Fair Housing Act

In certain cases, the following groups may be exempt from following the Act:

  • Single-family homes that are rented or sold without using a broker
  • Owner-occupied homes with no more than four units
  • Members-only private clubs or organizations

Enforcement of Fair Housing

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for enforcing the Fair Housing Act.

HUD enforces the Act in two ways:

  1. Fair Housing Testers: HUD hires people to pose as renters or home buyers to see if discriminatory practices are being used. As a landlord, you need to be careful what you say in person, on the phone, and in rental ads.
  2. Investigate Discrimination Claims: Individuals who feel their fair housing rights have been violated under the Fair Housing Act can file a discrimination claim with HUD. HUD will investigate the claim, determine if there is any merit to it, and decide if further legal action is necessary.

How Landlords Can Avoid Accusations of Discrimination

To ensure you remain compliant with the Fair Housing Act, assume everyone works for HUD or is trying to accuse you of discrimination.

You must adhere to the terms of the Fair Housing Act, but you can rule out tenants based on other criteria. You can legally deny a tenant housing based on poor credit, inability to pay rent, or other information found when you run a credit check on them.

Be consistent in screening tenants, and have the same qualifying standards for every tenant. Go through the exact same practices for each prospective tenant who applies to rent your property. Require the same information, documents, referrals, and fees. And treat everyone with respect and dignity.

Many states have additional protected classes, such as sexual orientation, age, and student status. Check your local and state fair housing laws to make sure you are following them in addition to the federal law.