The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating in renting based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The act (a federal law) provides no prohibition against discriminating based on immigration or citizenship status, but some states do offer such protection.
Discrimination under the Fair Housing Act covers more than just the process of trying to sign a lease. Based on race, color, or national origin, a landlord cannot: refuse to rent housing; refuse to negotiate for housing; make housing unavailable; otherwise deny a dwelling; set different terms, conditions, or privileges for rental of a dwelling; provide different housing services or facilities; falsely deny that housing is available for rental; for profit, persuade homeowners to rent dwellings by suggesting that tenants of a particular race have moved, or are about to move into the neighborhood; or deny any tenant access to any organization, facility, or service related to the rental of dwellings, or discriminate against any tenant in the terms or conditions of such access.
Landlords who treat a tenant differently because they don’t speak English may violate the Fair Housing Act. The law broadly states that setting different terms, conditions, or privileges based on one’s national origin is illegal and courts have found that treating foreign tenants less favorably because they don’t speak English is illegal. The inverse also applies in some cases. Landlords that don’t speak English cannot only accept tenants that speak their language to the extent that they are attempting to restrict the renting of their apartment to their own race, color, or national origin.
Describing the Neighborhood
It’s illegal to tell applicants that the overall racial demographics of an area in order to rent a place to them, whether in person or in writing. For example, stating that minorities are moving out of a neighborhood is considered a means of racial discrimination as a matter of law.
Screening Criminal Violations
Recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, who enforces the Fair Housing Act) determined that blanket bans on all criminals have a disproportionate impact on minorities and are therefore illegal as de facto racial discrimination. Landlords are prohibited from denying applicants based on arrests, rather than criminal convictions. Additionally, when considering a tenant’s arrest records, landlords must take into account the nature of the crime, how long ago it happened, and otherwise, the extent to which the criminal history may actually endanger other tenants. https://www.hud.gov/topics/housing_discrimination.
These rental discrimination rules do not apply to owner-occupied buildings with fewer than five units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members. Non-commercial housing operated by religious organizations can restrict their housing to persons of the same religion.
Filing a Complaint
Under the Fair Housing Act, victims of rental discrimination have one year to file an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and two years to file a private lawsuit. Tenants can learn more about how to file a complaint here: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/complaint-process. To file a complaint under state laws (i.e., for discrimination based on immigration or citizenship status), tenants should contact their state or local housing authorities.
State and Local Laws
Laws differ heavily by state, county, and city. Use RenterPeace to see more specific laws for to a given apartment and to see comments from people in your area.
Documenting the Problem
For most problems, tenants should document their issues, notify their landlord (document this too!), and stay informed about their rights. Renterpeace is a free website that helps with each step of this process. Tenants use RenterPeace to more easily see applicable laws, track their problems, and much more. There's a reason RenterPeace was selected "Best of" legal apps for both Android and iOS. It also includes household management tools, like a chore manager and bill tracker. Try it - you don't even to login first.
Using Property Management
To stay updated and organized about the problems in their apartments, landlords should use a property management system. Many are expensive or have high setup fees, but using RenterPeace for landlords is free. It's complete with legal compliance tips targeted to their problems, maintenance tracking, tenant screening, money-saving grant information, and tenant chat. It makes managing properties easier and staying updated about status of rental properties a breeze. Try it today.