Tenants and Fair Housing

Landlords have a lot of discretion when selecting tenants. A landlord can deny a prospective renter for a number of legitimate reasons. However, the federal Fair Housing Act does restrict landlords from discriminating against potential tenants if the tenant belongs to a protected class. In this article, we are going to discuss tenants and fair housing, what it does, and what it means for tenants.

1. What is the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act is a federal law passed in 1968 with the stated purpose of protecting buyers and renters from discrimination. The Act made it unlawful for a landlord to refuse to rent or negotiate with a person because of that person’s inclusion in a protected class. The goal was to equal the playing field so that a person’s background did not arbitrarily restrict access to housing. It was passed during the height of the civil rights movement. The Act is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, commonly referred to as HUD.

2. Legal Reasons a Landlord Can Deny a Prospective Tenant

A landlord can require a prospective tenant to fill out an application and may even charge an application fee. Landlords can also run credit reports and background checks on potential tenants. A landlord can legally deny a rental application based on their credit rating, financial stability, and criminal history. Other legal reasons for denial include:

• Unsatisfactory references
• Previous evictions
• Frequent moves
• New job
• Smoking
• No verifiable income
• Too many vehicles
• Insufficient income
• Too many debts
• And many, many more

Landlords have lots of latitude in deciding who to rent to and who not to rent to.

3. Discriminatory Reasons a Landlord Cannot Use to Deny a Tenant

Landlords cannot discriminate against tenants or potential tenants based on

Their belonging to a protected class. The categories of protected classes on the federal level are:

• Race
• Gender
• Religion
• Familial status (minor children or pregnancy)
• Disability
• Ethnicity

The specific acts that are covered include deciding whether to rent to a particular person, setting a rule that only affects a particular person or advertising that an apartment is only available to certain people. Landlords are also required by the Act to make reasonable accommodations for any tenants with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations may include adding wheel-chair ramps on doorways or placing disabled tenants on the first floor. If a landlord owns an older building and the accommodations would require a major remodel, the landlord is most likely exempted from having to make the accommodation.

It is also important to note that these are the federally recognized protected classes, some states and cities have expanded protections to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and age.

4. Reasonable Accommodations Applies to Service Animals

Under the Act, a disability is defined as an impairment, physical or mental, that significantly limits a person’s life activities. Landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations for anyone who has a disability, and that includes allowing pets who are assistance animals. An assistance animal is legally classified differently than a pet, and therefore any pet restriction or fee imposed by the landlord is not applicable to an assistance animal.

5. Types of Behavior that is Prohibited

Not only are landlords not able to deny housing based on the criteria above they are also not allowed to:

• Make housing unavailable for members of a protected class because they belong to the protected class.
• Set different terms or rules for members and nonmembers of protected classes.
• Provide different or inferior housing for members of a protected class.
• Falsely claim that no units are available for rent to members of a protected class.

The Fair Housing rules and regulations go past just renting property, they cover a host of other rental-related activities.

6. How to Report a Fair Housing Violation

A report of a Fair Housing Violation can be made online or by phone to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Someone from HUD will investigate the complaint and determine whether a violation has been committed. If the investigator finds a violation it will be set for a hearing in front of HUD judge. If the judge finds that a violation has been committed, he or she will fine the landlord:

• $16,000 for a first-time violator
• $37,500 for a violator who has violated before
• $65,000 for someone who has violated the Act two or more times previously

It is important that a tenant understands their rights and how to exercise them under the Fair Housing Act. The subject of tenants and fair housing can be a complicated one; it is our hope that this article helped explain some of the basics of the Fair Housing Act so a tenant can navigate their way through the process if they need to.