Federal Fair Housing Laws

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination in housing. Enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), these laws protect minorities living in the United States from being excluded from housing. The Fair Housing Act and 1988 Amendments, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, further define protected categories.

The landlord of an owner-occupied dwelling with four or fewer units is exempt from the federal Fair Housing Acts, but may be included in state or local laws prohibiting discrimination, and state and local laws often are more restrictive than federal legislation.

Your best bet as a landlord, therefore, is to understand the laws governing landlords and tenants and follow the intent of the legislation. That's the best way to avoid the headache of having to answer a discrimination complaint filed by someone looking for an apartment or by one of your tenants.

The Fair Housing Acts prohibit discrimination based upon:

  • Race

  • Color

  • Religion

  • National origin

  • Family status (includes those with children under 18, pregnant women, and the elderly)

  • Disability or handicap

  • Sex

  • Sexual orientation

Based upon the above-listed protections, discriminatory practices by landlords are prohibited by the legislation and can include:

  • Advertising or saying anything that indicates preferences or limits housing opportunities to exclude those in protected categories. (This applies to all landlords no matter how many units they have.)

  • Falsely stating that the unit is rented

  • Setting restrictive standards in selecting tenants

  • Refusing to rent to members of a protected group

  • Setting different terms, conditions, or privileges before or during a tenancy

  • Inconsistency in treatment of tenants, such as requiring some to pay larger deposits

  • Inconsistency about late payments

  • Terminating a lease for discriminatory reasons

Federal Laws Protecting the Disabled

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 includes protections for people with physical, mental, hearing, visual, and other sensory disabilities. It also protects people with certain medical conditions (such as HIV-positive status or asthma), recovering alcoholics, and former drug users. Although the Act pertains mostly to owners of multi-unit buildings, other landlords may be affected.

If you have a visually impaired tenant and want to give her anything in writing, you must first read it aloud so that she understands what you are trying to communicate. It is not up to the impaired tenant to find out what the document contains.

If you are renting an apartment to a person in a wheelchair, you may have to provide a spacious parking place that's located near the unit. Guide dogs for visually impaired tenants must be allowed, even if your policy is to allow no pets. Hearing-impaired tenants also must be allowed to have dogs that alert them to doorbells, ringing phones, and fire sirens. And some people with psychological problems such as depression or anxiety disorders are beginning to ask landlords to allow their pets because the animal provides emotional support.

Landlords may also be required to let a tenant modify the unit so that it meets his specific needs, at the tenant's expense. Someone in a wheelchair may want countertops that are lower than standard height or want to build a ramp to the entrance. If opening doors and turning on faucets is a problem, then you should allow the tenant to change the existing knobs to a more manageable fixture.

Tenants should always get your approval first. If modifications would not be acceptable to another tenant, then the tenant must restore the unit to its original condition when he moves out.

Keep in mind that all landlords must follow HUD's nondiscriminatory advertising guidelines, and your state and local government may have more stringent fair housing codes that apply to small property owners. It is essential that new landlords understand the fair housing laws in their state and community to avoid violating those housing codes.

Exemptions for Owner-Occupied Property

Landlords who have owner-occupied dwellings are generally exempt from the federal fair housing standards and can reject applicants in protected categories.

Other properties exempted in the federal Acts include single-family houses rented without using discriminatory advertising and without the help of a real estate broker, housing operated by a religious group or private club (which can be restricted to members), and housing that exclusively serves senior citizens, 62 or older, if all occupants are seniors. (There also is a 55-and-older housing exemption; at least 80 percent of the units must be occupied by at least one person who is 55 or older.)

If a party files a discrimination complaint or sues in federal or state court, some landlords do their own legal research, but you'd be better off getting a lawyer. A complaint before HUD can go on for up to ten years before it is resolved.

Discrimination Complaints

People can file complaints with HUD or with state or local housing authorities if they suspect a landlord has discriminated against them. A complaint filed with federal and state fair housing agencies typically is investigated. If the complaint is not dismissed, the agency will try to have both parties reach a compromise. If an agreement to compromise fails, then an administrative hearing is held before a judge.

Tenants and prospective tenants also can sue landlords in a federal or state court. Landlords determined guilty of discrimination, either in an administrative hearing or in a state or federal court, may be subject to penalties.

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