What is the Fair Housing Act? Established in 1968, this federal law protects Americans from housing discrimination. In a nutshell, it means that all home buyers and renters should receive equal treatment and access to properties regardless of race, religion, gender, nation of origin, disability, or familial status (i.e., whether someone has children).
The Fair Housing Act was passed one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., essentially extending the same discrimination protections contained within the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the housing market. Federal Fair Housing laws are important to adhere to if you're in the position of deciding who gets to live in a home—namely, home sellers and landlords. But these laws also apply to anyone who can facilitate a housing transaction, such as mortgage lenders, property managers, and real estate brokers and agents. (As an agent myself, I recall how on the first day of my licensing course, the instructor said to the class, "If you take anything away from this course, it's that you can never break Fair Housing laws.")
Here's why the Fair Housing Act carries so much weight, how to tell if you're a victim of housing discrimination, and where you can go for help if needed.
How common are Fair Housing violations?
According to the most recent data from the National Fair Housing Alliance’s annual report, there were 28,181 reported complaints of housing discrimination in 2016. Yet the alliance estimates that many more incidents of housing discrimination go unreported each year.
The overwhelming majority of reported housing discrimination cases (91.5%) occurred during rental transactions. While housing discrimination can occur after renters move in (by denying heat or hot water, for instance), most violations take place when prospective tenants apply for apartments, and owners reject them based on their race, sex, or another protected class.
Occasionally, the discrimination is clear-cut—e.g., if a home seller explicitly asks for (or rules out) home buyers of a certain religion or nation of origin. But cases are rarely that cut and dried, and can often be complex, the discrimination subtle or even unintentional.
For instance, in the November 2016 case "United States v. Kelly," the owner of a property in Rapid City, SD, was found guilty of discrimination for refusing to rent a unit to a woman and her 17-year-old daughter. The reason? The owner was concerned about the woman's safety as a single mother living in that particular neighborhood and “always rented to bachelors.”
Moral of the story: Housing discrimination can occur regardless of the violator's intentions.
What Fair Housing laws mean for real estate agents
From a real estate agent’s perspective, we have to make sure that our clients—whether they’re home buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, etc.—don’t become victims or perpetrators of housing discrimination.
Personally, my one encounter with discrimination involved a couple of my clients. As co-owners of a rental unit in Arlington, VA, they'd wanted to mention in the ad that they were looking for female tenants, since they thought women were generally cleaner than men and would keep the apartment in better condition. However, once I explained that this could be a violation of the Fair Housing Act, my clients changed the ad and, in fact, wound up leasing the unit to a male tenant. And, last I checked, that person was an excellent (and clean) tenant!
Also, as a real estate agent, I can't answer some questions from clients such as whether a neighborhood is safe or whether the schools are good. Commenting on those subjects might not seem like a big deal, but it can actually cause me to violate Fair Housing statutes. For instance, if I said a certain area is "not all that family-friendly," it could imply that families with kids aren’t welcome there. Or, if I said a neighborhood is a "good place to raise kids," that could be interpreted as saying households without kids aren't welcome, which is a form of discrimination, too.
Are there protected classes at the state and local levels?
Many state and local laws provide further protection to consumers against discrimination by enforcing additional protected classes. Depending on where you live, these may include the following:
- Veteran or military status
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity or expression
- Source of income
- Criminal history
I do a large portion of my real estate business in Washington, DC, where there are 11 protected classes in addition to the federal protected classes. For example, political affiliation is one of DC’s protected classes, which makes sense considering the nation’s capitol is home to many politicians—and people with strong political views
Where to go for help on housing discrimination
Your best move if you believe you’re a victim of housing discrimination is to consult a real estate attorney. Many states have tenants’ rights centers that offer renters free advice. You can also contact your nearest Fair Housing Assistance Program agency for help; the Department of Housing and Urban Development maintains a list of participating agencies.
You can file a complaint online at HUD.gov. Once it's filed, one of HUD’s specialists will contact the alleged violator to determine if there’s been a Fair Housing violation, and then typically works toward an agreement between the parties involved. If an agreement can’t be reached and if a judge rules that discrimination has occurred, the violator may be ordered to compensate the plaintiff for damages, make housing available, pay a civil penalty, and/or pay reasonable attorney’s fees.
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