Discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability is illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act. This important civil rights law aims to ensure equal access to housing opportunities for all. While progress has been made, housing discrimination still persists in subtle and overt ways.
As a homeowner or renter, it’s essential to understand your fair housing rights. This guide provides an overview of key protections, how to recognize discriminatory practices, and what to do if you experience housing discrimination.
Background on Fair Housing Laws
The federal Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968 and amended in 1988, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. The law covers:
- National origin
- Familial status (having children under 18 in the household, including pregnant women)
- Disability (physical or mental)
Under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal for landlords, sellers, lenders, insurance companies, and homeowners associations to discriminate because of any of these protected characteristics.
The law applies to a wide range of housing transactions, including rentals, sales, mortgage lending, homeowners insurance, and zoning practices. All types of housing are covered, including apartments, houses, condos, and mobile homes.
Examples of Illegal Discrimination
Discrimination under fair housing laws can be direct or indirect. Here are some examples of illegal practices:
- Refusing to rent to families with children
- Charging higher rents or deposits for tenants based on race
- Steering prospective buyers to certain neighborhoods due to ethnicity
- Refusing reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities
- Providing different home loan terms for minority borrowers
- Denying housing insurance due to domestic violence victim status
Subtle and Overt Discrimination
Housing discrimination today is rarely overt. Instead, it often happens through:
- Discriminatory advertising – Ads that exclude groups or express preferences based on protected traits
- Selective telling about listings – Only telling certain groups about available units
- Differential treatment – Providing extra help or information to preferred groups
- Discouragement – Implying the unit or neighborhood won’t work for a minority family
Other common practices that can be discriminatory include extra application or processing fees, more stringent qualification standards, and differential terms or conditions for different groups.
What to Watch Out For
Be on the lookout for any differential treatment based on protected characteristics like race, disability, having children, national origin, etc. Pay attention to:
- Any subtle discouragement or “steering” away from units or neighborhoods
- Ad campaigns that only feature certain demographics
- Being told a unit is no longer available once the landlord or agent meets you
- Stricter standards suddenly applied, like higher credit scores or income requirements
Trust your instincts if something feels unfair or off. Don’t hesitate to ask clarifying questions, take notes, or file a complaint.
If you suspect discrimination, be sure to document your experience through:
- Saving any ads, emails, or notices that demonstrate differential treatment
- Taking notes during conversations with detailed accounts of what was said
- Recording interactions, if permitted by law
- Photographing properties to compare condition or amenities across units
- Obtaining copies of applications, leases, or other forms
- Comparing experiences with other applicants
Filing a Complaint
If you believe you’ve experienced illegal housing discrimination, you can file a complaint with either a local fair housing agency or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):
- Local – Your city, county, or state likely has a fair housing office to handle complaints. They may be able to negotiate a resolution or help you file a federal complaint.
- HUD – You can file a complaint with HUD within 1 year of the incident either online or by phone (800-669-9777). HUD will investigate at no cost to you.
- Legal Action – You also have the right to file a lawsuit against the housing provider. HUD or local agencies can make referrals to civil rights lawyers who may work on contingency.
The bottom line is you have protections under fair housing laws. Discriminatory practices – both overt and subtle – are unacceptable. If you experience differential treatment in your housing search, be sure to recognize it and seek assistance. We all deserve equal access to safe, affordable housing free from discrimination.