A Property Owner's Guide to Fair Housing Laws

Dominique Swanson

By Dominique Swanson

Apr 15, 2024

Are you breaking any fair housing laws unintentionally? It’s up to you to find out.

That’s right — even with the best intentions, landlords are still liable if they unknowingly violate these laws. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of recognizing disparate impact claims, which refer to policies, practices, rules, or other systems that have a neutral intent but have a disproportionate impact on a protected group. Essentially, an action can be considered discriminatory, even if the intent was not.

Making sure your rental properties are inclusive and fair isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s your legal responsibility as a property owner or property manager. In this guide, we cover what you need to know about fair housing laws, fair housing violations you may not know about, and more.

Understanding Fair Housing Laws

Federal fair housing laws are designed to protect renters from discrimination. These federal laws were established in the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), the more common name for Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. While they were initially enacted to prevent any housing providers or housing-related entities (ie. landlords, real estate companies, mortgage lenders, homeowners insurance companies, etc.) from discriminating on the basis of race, they have expanded to ensure equal opportunity in housing to all, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, familial status, or disability. The laws also prohibit discrimination against anyone on housing subsidy or public assistance programs.

Not every protected class was recognized when the Fair Housing Act was established, but it has been amended over time, with proposed changes as recently as 2023. For example, Title VIII was amended in 1974 to include discrimination on the basis of sex. In 1988, familial status and disabilities were included as protected classes. Two years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to further expand fair housing rights for those with disabilities. As a landlord, it’s important to stay up to date on any changes to the Fair Housing Act.

Discriminatory practices can take many forms, such as refusing to rent or sell housing or setting different terms or conditions based on a person’s membership in a protected class. The Fair Housing Act aims to consider every violation, whether intentional or unintentional, which is why it is crucial for landlords to look at every scenario through the lens of the law. Even well-meaning actions can result in unintentional violations.

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces fair housing laws, though each state may pass its own local laws to enhance protections. For example, the Massachusetts fair housing laws expand the protected classes to include military/veteran status, marital status, and age, among others. Make sure that you are following both federal and state laws when it comes to fair housing.

Are You Unintentionally Violating Fair Housing Laws?

Some violations, such as refusing to rent to someone because of the religious organization they are part of or pursuing eviction against a tenant because of a change in their familial status (like if they get pregnant), are intentional acts of discrimination, but many others are not. Unintentional violations may happen due to ignorance, or oversight, and often include scenarios of discriminatory language, inadvertently excluding certain groups, or failing to provide reasonable modifications (like installing grab bars for a tenant with a disability) to a unit.

Examples of Fair Housing Act Violations

  • You may feel your rental is not best suited for small children, so you decide to include “No children” on your rental listing. While you may mean well by doing this, you are using discriminatory language and are in violation of the law.
  • Denying an emotional support animal (ESA) or service animal, despite the reason, can be seen as failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. In fact, one of the most common categories fair housing complaints HUD receives is in regard to disability discrimination — whether that be excluding people with disabilities with discriminatory language, such as writing “ideal for an active person” on an apartment listing, or denying reasonable accommodations like a service animal or ESA in a unit that’s typically not pet friendly.
  • Guiding your prospective renter to or away from a property, such as leading someone in a protected class away from a specific type of housing and towards another because you feel it will work the best for them, is considered steering, and despite your intentions, is a violation of the law.
  • If you determine someone may not be approved via your screening process so you deter them from applying, you are in violation of the FHA.

What Happens if You Violate Fair Housing Laws?

If you fail to follow the FHA, then you can be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in civil penalties, punitive damages, and attorney fees.

There are currently 20 Boston-area landlords and real estate agents being sued for housing discrimination against low-income tenants who were attempting to use housing vouchers. If you are a landlord, it is common for your property to be “shopped,” which is the process in which a person, usually a HUD representative, pretends to be a prospective tenant in order to test your property and your agents. In the case for the Boston defendants, they were caught explicitly saying that their properties did not accept Section 8 or subsidized housing program vouchers.

HUD offers examples of housing discrimination. You can learn more about the types of discrimination on their website: hud.gov.

Strategies for Complying with Fair Housing Laws

There are several steps you can take to ensure compliance with fair housing laws, including ongoing training, developing clear policies/procedures, staying up to date with amendments to the Fair Housing Act, and regularly checking HUD for new updates to the laws.

  1. Fair Housing Training

There are many online resources, or in-person seminars that will help you stay updated on the law and any additions or changes made to the Fair Housing Act. Platforms such as Grace Hill, the Fair Housing Institute, and 360training all offer courses you can take. If you prefer to attend in-person training, check out your state’s website for workshop times, dates, and locations.

  1. Clear Policies on Objective Factors

When screening potential tenants for housing, you should have clear criteria based on objective factors, like credit score or income. Having unclear or inconsistent guidelines, like imposing different standards for different tenants when, can become confusing for you, the agents working for you, and the prospective tenants hoping to rent with you. Best practices suggest having your screening criteria listed on your rental application, and never tell a prospective tenant if you think they will be approved or not before they submit an application. The only way to determine approval is to complete the application process.

  1. Documentation

Keeping detailed records of interactions with current or future residents is vital, whether that be applications, notes on correspondence, or screening information. This type of documentation is essential if a complaint is filed with HUD against you or you at any point need legal advice.

The Bottom Line

Fair housing laws are essential safeguards against housing discrimination, but they can seem daunting to navigate. Education, ongoing training, clear procedures, and a commitment to compliance help create a more equitable environment for all. You are responsible for ensuring you are following fair housing practices, and that includes unintentional violations, but with a few strategies in place, you can stay on the right side of the law.

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