The right to rent property without racial, ethnic, religious, or ethnic discrimination is firmly etched in the law.
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What is fair housing?
"Fair housing" is a legal term applied to federal, state, and municipal laws that prohibit landlords from refusing to rent property because the prospective tenant falls into one or more certain protected classes.
The Fair Housing Act (Chapter 42 of the United States Code, beginning at Section 3601) forbids landlords to discriminate in choosing tenants because of their race, religion, ethnic origin, color, sex, physical or mental handicap, or family status. Landlords cannot refuse to rent to a family with children. It is also illegal under the Fair Housing Act for landlords to harass, intimidate, threaten, interfere with, or evict a tenant because of the same factors. Furthermore, the same law prohibits the landlord from attempting to evict a tenant for filing a complaint or lawsuit charging the landlord with discrimination.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 (Chapter 42 of the U.S. Code, Section 1982) prohibits discrimination because of the race, ethnic origin, or color of the tenants. This federal law applies to all landlords without any exceptions.
All the states and many cities have enacted fair housing laws as well. Some of these laws are not as strict as the federal law, but some are stricter because they protect additional classes of persons. For example, some states and municipalities forbid rental discrimination based on marital status, age (over 40 especially), less than honorable discharge from the military, sexual orientation, or source of income (welfare, social security, alimony, or child support).
Is a landlord allowed to discriminate in the selection of tenants?
That depends on how you define “discriminate.” The landlord isn’t required to take all applicants. He or she can use legal criteria to select tenants, such as their past history of tenancy, the amount of income they have with which to pay the rent, their credit history, and their past criminal record. The landlord may also use personal criteria in selecting tenants, such as whether they have purple hair or nose rings. In some places, a landlord may even refuse to rent to certain people because of their occupation. But the law has made many other forms of discrimination unlawful.
What can a prospective tenant—one who tried to rent a home and was turned down—do against a landlord who discriminates illegally?
The fair housing laws provide for two remedies. A prospective tenant can file an administrative complaint with the agency enforcing the law or can sue the landlord in court.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for enforcing the federal fair housing laws. The complaint must be filed within one year of the date of the discriminatory conduct. States and many cities have human rights agencies that accept complaints. HUD has the authority to award monetary damages to the person discriminated against; the agency of the state or municipality may have similar authority. The prospective tenant may also file a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the Fair Housing Act or the Civil Rights Act. The person may file an administrative complaint with HUD and sue in court at the same time. The prospective tenant may file a lawsuit in the state court to enforce the state or local law.
How can the prospective tenant prove that the landlord has illegally discriminated?
The prospective tenant has the burden of proving that the landlord's conduct was discriminatory. The person can establish a case against the landlord by proving four things: that the plaintiff is a member of a protected group; that the plaintiff applied for and was qualified to rent a certain property; that the plaintiff was rejected by the landlord; and that the property remained unrented thereafter.
What are the possible outcomes for a prospective tenant who files a complaint or a lawsuit for discrimination?
If the prospective tenant wins, the landlord can be ordered to rent the premises and perhaps to pay actual and punitive monetary damages as well. The landlord can also be assessed the attorney's fees incurred by the prospective tenant. The landlord may also have to submit to periodic review of documents and practices for a certain number of years.