Renter Rights: Fair Housing and Discrimination Laws

8151034866_47d0e04b3dLooking for housing is hard enough without being discriminated against. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, it’s illegal for renters and purchasers of housing to be treated unfairly because of their race, gender, religion, color, national origin, familial status, or disability (these are the seven protected classes). This means a landlord can’t refuse to show a renter an apartment because he or she has children, or charge higher rent and fees due to race or disability.  Being knowledgeable about Fair Housing and discrimination laws in your state and county will protect you from unfair practices in your rental search.


What’s prohibited?

A landlord cannot make the following decisions based on a renter’s race, gender, religion, color, national origin, familial status, or disability:

  • Refuse to rent to you
  • Falsely claim that a unit is unavailable
  • Set different terms or conditions of the lease for the renter
  • Persuade you to rent in a certain area
  • Deny renters access to listings
  • Refuse reasonable property modifications for handicapped renters

Discriminatory advertising that excludes or indicates preference for someone of a certain race, religion, color, gender, national origin, disability, or familial status is also illegal. There are exceptions, such as when the home listed is owner-occupied, so double check with your local housing authority if you think you’re being discriminated against.

If you or a person you live with has a physical or mental disability, your landlord can’t deny you reasonable accommodations. For example, a ramp may need to be installed for a wheelchair, or counters lowered for the resident to have access to the apartment and the facilities. The renter may need to foot the costs of the modifications and promise to put the unit back into the original condition at the end the tenancy, but the landlord can’t refuse to accommodate these requests. Similarly, if a resident needs a guide dog due to vision impairment, a landlord can’t refuse, even if the complex doesn’t allow pets. 

Fair housing exempts senior housing from the familial status provision. Because senior housing providers clearly state the housing is for 55 or 62-and-older residents, they are not required to rent to families with children. Occupancy laws can also limit how large of a family a landlord can rent to. For example, if the city ordinance limits the number of occupants per square feet, the landlord may not be able to rent a 300 square foot one bedroom apartment to a large family due to city regulations.


So who isn’t in a protected class? 

A landlord can refuse to rent to you based on your financial trustworthiness. For example, many rental applications also involve a credit check, proof of employment, or references. Your housing provider can require that you be employed, or make three times the rent so you’re less likely to miss rent payments. 

Smokers. Residential buildings are increasingly becoming smoke-free, and since secondhand smoke is hazardous to other residents, it’s legal for landlords to ban smoking.

Students. Depending on the city or state you live in, students may not be a protected class. While many states list students as one of their protected classes, not all of them do. As a result, a landlord could prefer to rent to a family over a group of students because they don’t want to deal with extra paperwork.

Criminals. Once again, some states do include criminals in their protected classes when it comes to housing regulations. In most areas, a landlord isn’t obligated to rent to a person that is a threat to the other residents. For example, a person could be denied an apartment because of a criminal record. 

Image by Apple Realty via Flickr.