Housing Discrimination is Illegal

The Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from choosing tenants on the basis of class or group characteristic, such as:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Ethnic background or national origin
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Children (except in certain designated senior housing)
  • Mental or physical disability.

Civil rights and fair housing laws prohibit many types of housing discrimination

  • Qualifications
  • Civil Rights
  • Housing Discrimination
  • Discrimination Complaints
  • Penalties
  • Senior Housing
  • Religious Organization and Private Clubs
  • People with Disabilities


Professional property managers protect themselves and their employers from expensive charges of discrimination by employing a tenant qualification check list and accepting the FIRST tenant applicant who meets their established qualifications.

Landlords are allowed to select tenants using criteria that are based on valid business reasons, such as acceptable credit history, a minimum income or a positive references from previous landlords, as long as these criteria are applied equally to all tenants.

About the only method of insuring against discrimination claims is to make sure that everyone – owners, managers and employees – who deal with tenants or applicants, do not discriminate, and are educated about the risk and ramifications of their every word or action.

They must also be made to understand that black lists are illegal, even if they consist of nothing more than a list of undesirables compiled by a few landlord friends and associates, or a local rental housing association.

Civil Rights

The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1866 – Prohibits discrimination based on race without exception. The United States Civil Rights Act of 1968, and its Amendments in the Act of 1988, are commonly called The Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 – These laws prohibit housing discrimination against certain classes of individuals.
In a significant 1968 case, the Supreme Court decided Jones v Mayer where the Court upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The ruling prohibits all racial discrimination, private or public, in the sale and rental of property. The decision was important because the 1968 law, as it was written, exempts homeowners who rent a part of the home they live in, and certain groups who, for example, may wish to rent to members of their own religion or club.

In addition, some state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation, family, marital or even military status. Others prohibit discrimination based on even wider ranging issues, including: source of income and political affiliation.

NOTE. Some types of housing are still exempt from portions of the fair housing laws. See below.

Housing Discrimination

The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from taking any of the following actions based on race, religion or any other protected category:

Advertising or making any statement that indicates a preference based on group characteristic, such as skin color
Falsely denying that a rental unit is available
Setting more restrictive standards, such as higher income, for selecting tenants
Refusing to rent to members of certain groups
Refusing to accommodate the needs of disabled tenants, such as allowing a guide dog, hearing dog or service dog
Setting different terms for some tenants, such as adopting an inconsistent policy of responding to late rent payments, or
Terminating a tenancy for a discriminatory reason.

Discrimination Complaints

The U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is the agency that enforces the Fair Housing Act. State and local offices are listed with HUD’s Fair Housing Information Clearinghouse at (800) 343-3442. HUD provides complaint forms, investigates and decides the merits of any discrimination claim.

Complaints must be filed with HUD within one year of the alleged discrimination. HUD typically appoints a mediator to negotiate with the landlord and reach a settlement (called a “conciliation”). If a settlement can’t be reached, the fair housing agency holds an administrative hearing to determine whether actually discrimination occurred.

If the discrimination is a violation of a state fair housing law, the tenant can file a complaint with the state agency in charge of enforcing the law. In Michigan, for example,the State Civil Rights Commission deals with complaints. California enforcement of the state’s two fair housing laws is through the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

In addition to filing a complaint with HUD or a state agency, tenants may file lawsuits directly in federal or state court.

Penalties for Discrimination

If a state or federal court or housing agency finds that discrimination has taken place, a tenant may be awarded damages, including any higher rent he or she had to pay as a result of being turned down, for example.

Actual Damages. Out-of-pocket costs incurred by the complainant as a result of discrimination. They can also include compensation for non-economic injuries like emotional distress and humiliation.

Civil Penalties. From $10,000 for the first violation, to $50,000 for any subsequent. If the US Justice Department sues, the civil penalty can reach $100,000.

Punitive Damages. These awards have no limit and have been in the millions.

Injections. An inductive order may prohibit a specific act, or even require some corrective action in the future. For example: the landlord may be required to advertise for and rent to minorities to fill their next vacancies.

Attorneys Fees. Fair Housing Laws allow the injured party to receive their attorney fees from the loser.

Senior Citizen Housing

A landlord can only discriminate against tenants with children if the property meets the following criteria:

– The housing is intended solely for persons 62 years old or above.

– 80% of the units have at least one occupant 55 years old or above and the building has age restrictions.

– Advertising can state: “No Children Allowed”, or “Over 55 Building.” But it cannot discriminate against other protected classes under the Fair Housing Law.

UPDATE: HR660, passed in December 1995, eliminated a federal requirement that qualifying senior housing must provide significant facilities like community dining, health care or recreation to allow for restrictions against children.
Religious Organizations and Private Clubs:

A restriction on the sale or rental of property owned by groups may be limited to their members, if they meet the federal guidelines. Anyone who seeks to use this exception to Fair Housing Law should confirm it with competent legal counsel first, as an error in interpretation could prove costly.

People with Disabilities

Disabled Americans are protected by both the Federal Fair Housing Act and The American’s with Disabilities Act. We have several pages on the subject under a web called Barrier Free. You may also wish to visit the U.S. government pages on: Fair Housing Requirements for People With Disabilities