Navigating housing discrimination laws is a primary concern among many landlords today. Avoiding such discrimination claims, though, begins with understanding just what fair housing laws are and why they exist.
The Importance of Rental Housing Discrimination Laws
Before the introduction of fair housing laws, discrimination was rampant in the housing market. Housing providers would openly reject applicants due to their race, sex, and religion. This created an unfair market that disproportionately affected certain classes.
Legislators sought to put an end to housing discrimination by enacting laws that specifically prohibited it. With these laws in place, housing providers (i.e. lenders, sellers, and landlords) cannot deny applicants on account of their race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability. Essentially, these laws aim to create a housing market free of prejudice and bias, providing equal access to everyone.
Fair housing laws exist on two levels: federal and state. Federal laws apply to all states across the United States, while state laws only apply to those operating within the specified state.
Federal Housing Discrimination Laws
The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the amendments made in 1988 prohibit housing discrimination based on certain criteria, also known as protected classes. According to this federal law, landlords can’t discriminate against tenants on the basis of their:
- Race or color, such as turning away every applicant of a certain race or based on the color of their skin;
- National origin, such as offering a discounted rental rate for Asian-Americans;
- Sex, such as only accepting male tenants;
- Religion, such as showing preference to Christians over other faiths;
- Familial Status, such as denying applicants with kids; or,
- Disability, such as refusing to accommodate a tenant with a mental or physical impairment.
Under this act, landlords can’t market their listing in a way that depicts preference based on the protected classes. Landlords also must not falsely claim that the rental unit is no longer available to a tenant they don’t want to rent to. It is also against the Fair Housing Act to set more restrictive standards for certain tenants or groups based on their protected class.
Discrimination does not stop at the screening process, though. Even during a tenancy, landlords can still commit discriminatory acts. But, the Fair Housing Act prohibits such acts, including setting different conditions for select tenants and not others. Additionally, landlords can’t evict a tenant based on a discriminatory reason.
While the above Fair Housing violations examples do occur in real life, it is worth noting that discrimination is not always so overt. Subtle discrimination does exist and is, in fact, still shockingly prevalent in the housing industry.
State Housing Discrimination Laws
Fair housing law does not only exist at the federal level. Many states have enacted or added their own fair housing laws to supplement the federal Fair Housing Act. For instance, New York has extended protection from discrimination based on age, gender, citizenship status, marital status, and sexual orientation, among other things.
What Happens If a Landlord Violates Housing Discrimination Laws?
Once a landlord is found guilty of housing discrimination, a court or housing agency may order them to perform one or more of the following actions:
- Pay actual damages to the victim of discrimination
- Pay to compensate damages to the victim of discrimination
- Rent the property to the victim of discrimination
- Pay a civil penalty, which amounts to $19,000 for the initial violation alone
In some cases, a court may also order the landlord to pay punitive damages. This can amount to thousands of dollars, not yet including the tenant’s legal fees.
How Landlords Can Avoid Violating Rental Discrimination Laws
Considering the gravity of housing discrimination penalties, landlords should do whatever they can to avoid being on the receiving end of such claims. While this may not be easy to do at first, a few tips can help landlords get started on the right foot.
1. Be Careful How a Property Is Advertised
Believe it or not, housing discrimination can start from how landlords market their property. When creating a listing, landlords should focus on the property itself — its attributes, amenities, and the like. The listing should not mention anything about the type of tenant the landlord is looking for. It should not even state how the property is good for a certain type of tenant.
For instance, marketing a property as “great for families” might be misconstrued as not wanting unmarried persons. Even describing the property as being located in a “safe Christian community” can invite discrimination complaints. When advertising a property, inclusivity is key.
2. Screen Tenants Without Prejudice
More often than not, discrimination claims stem from the application and screening process. To minimize this, landlords should be careful about the information they ask of tenants. For example, asking tenants to provide a medical history is an absolute no-no. Landlords should also refrain from asking tenants if they have existing or past physical or mental disabilities. When screening tenants, it is important that landlords apply the same standards to all applicants.
3. Enforce Rules Equally
Lastly, it is imperative that landlords enforce rules equally among all tenants and applicants. For instance, rent discrimination happens a lot more than people think. This is when landlords charge a higher rent (or security deposit) for a certain class of people, usually minorities, compared to other classes.
A landlord might also enforce a rule on one tenant but not on another. Again, this is considered discrimination. Any form of unequal treatment can be considered housing discrimination. According to the Fair Housing Act, there does not even need to be an intention to discriminate. So long as the act is deemed discriminatory, a landlord can find themselves in legal trouble.
Protection from Housing Discrimination Claims
When it comes down to it, the best way to ensure a landlord does not intentionally or unintentionally violate fair housing laws is to treat each applicant and tenant equally. Landlords must use the same standards for screening and management, though many find this easier said than done. This is where a property management company can help.
A property management company can take charge of the application and screening process as well as rule enforcement. Managers have the proper training to treat every tenant the same and in a professional manner. Furthermore, management companies are always up-to-date on the latest laws that apply to landlords and rental properties. Start searching for a property management company today using Rental Choice’s online directory.
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