It is illegal in Rhode Island (and federally) for landlords to discriminate against tenants based on their having children, being pregnant, or otherwise their familial status. Children must be provided equal access to all facilities and services offered to adults. In addition, tenants are protected from discrimination based on their marital status.
Most types of restrictions on families with children violate Rhode Island and federal law. For example, charging tenants with children higher rent or a higher deposit, advertising an apartment as being only for families (or not for families), putting an age limit for children, and placing all families in one part of the building are all illegal. R.I. Gen. Laws 34-37-4 , R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 34-37-4 .
Rights of Children
Landlords that treat children and adults differently are violating the law that prohibits landlords from discriminating against a tenant’s familial status. Thus, prohibiting children from playing in the laundry room, using the pool, or putting up signs that children can’t skateboard violates the law. Apartment policies must apply equally to adults and children. R.I. Gen. Laws 34-37-4 , R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 34-37-4 .
Discriminating against pregnant tenants is illegal. For example, it’s illegal to denying an apartment application because someone is pregnant, charging higher rent or deposits to a pregnant tenant, or deliberately placing a pregnant tenant in a certain part of a building so other tenants aren’t disturbed by the noise of babies. R.I. Gen. Laws 34-37-4 , R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 34-37-4 .
Rhode Island additionally prohibits discrimination based on one’s marital status. Landlords cannot offer lowered rent to married tenants, only accept married couples, or only accept single tenants. R.I. Gen. Laws 34-37-4 , R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 34-37-4 .
Exception for Landlord-Occupied Homes
Rhode Island has an exception called the “Murphy Rule”, which is intended to allow landlords to rent out extra rooms in their home without a large compliance burden. If the apartment is in the landlord’s own residence, then the landlord is free to discriminate regarding whom they rent to. This exception only applies to smaller homes, specifically where the house or building has four or fewer apartment units.
This exemption does not typically apply to advertising (e.g., “Only accepting white tenants”) or where the landlord uses a professional property manager or other real estate professional. Some states may have additional see restrictions. See state law for more details.
Tenants may report discrimination regarding familial status, children, or pregnancy to the federal government directly. They also have the option in Rhode Island to report it to state authorities. Tenants may choose to report the problem to both.
What happens when a tenant reports a problem to the federal government? The most recent year we have data is from 2016. In 2016, 63.4% (70.0% from Rhode Island) of discrimination cases were resolved in the year they were filed. 7 out of the 70 discrimination complaints from Rhode Island were about discrimination against children, familial status, or pregnancy. Landlords that violate the federal Fair Housing Act can face civil penalties up to $16,000 for a first violation and $65,000 for future violations (each act of discrimination is a separate violation). In cases where the Justice Department is involved, civil penalties may rise to $100,000 per violation and federal courts can add additional damages. Landlords should also keep in mind the time and costs involved in defending against an action by the federal government. About 36% of complaints end up with a charge or settlement, based on 2016 data. Data.gov
What happens when a tenant reports a problem to the authorities of Rhode Island or a local government? They may ask the tenant for information to help bring the case, including any evidence (e.g., emails and pictures). If the government finds there’s sufficient information between the tenant’s complaint (as well as complaints from other tenants), the landlord may be charged and taken to court to defend themselves. Landlords will likely receive fines if they lose. The amount of the fines will be determined in part by the severity of the issue. Fines increase significantly for repeat offenders. R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 34-37-5 . R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 34-37-5 .
Reporting a Violation
Tenants may report violations of federal laws (i.e., discrimination against children and families) through the HUD website – it can be done online or via phone. Tenants can report issues to their state government by looking at the state website. A google search for “report fair housing violation in Rhode Island” will likely provide applicable information. In either case, tenants may be able to call the number on the page to ask whether their situation legally qualifies as rental discrimination.
Retaliation by the Landlord
Federal law (the https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaintFair Housing Act ) makes it illegal for landlords to harass a tenant in retaliation for reporting a problem. Examples of such harassment may include raising the rent or threatening to evict the tenant. Each such attempt is an additional violation. These protections do not apply if the tenant complained about something that they don’t have right to, so tenants should know whether it’s a violation. 16 such cases were filed with the federal government from in last year we have data (2016). Data.gov. Dept of Housing and Urban Development.