Housing Discrimination Complaints: What Landlords Need to Know

No matter what walk of life you come from, you’ll probably be a tenant or a landlord at some point. As a tenant, you must stay on top of security deposits, rent increases, eviction policies as well as a number of state-specific ordinances.

Landlords have a number of responsibilities to handle as well. While every rental agreement may differ, there are a few issues that fall under the umbrella of housing discrimination that all landlords need to know. Today, we’ll go over important housing discrimination complaint facts. If you are a landlord or plan on becoming one, don’t wait until a complaint is filed against you. This quick guide can spare you from a costly housing discrimination complaint and serve as an important component in your overall asset protection strategy.

History of Housing Discrimination Complaints

In order for landlords to protect themselves from housing discrimination complaints, they should become familiar with the laws that govern these complaints. There are two main pieces of legislation that deal with housing discrimination complaints. First, is the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The act, which is also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, was created in response to rampant intentional and perhaps unintentional discriminatory housing policies.

These harmful policies went on for decades, harming a number of minorities, especially African Americans. In fact, the Fair Housing Act came on the heels of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act as an extension of the protections found in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On September 13, 1988, the Fair Housing Act was amended to also prohibit discrimination based on family status and disability. These laws were milestone pieces of legislation that were grounded in good motives.

However, as is the case with other well intentioned laws they can become overly complex and nuanced. This is why we recommend seeking experienced legal counsel when faced with housing discrimination complaints or tenant eviction cases.

What Does the Fair Housing Act Protect Against?

The Fair Housing Act provides protection for the following protected categories:

  1. Race
  2. Color
  3. Nation of Origin
  4. Religion
  5. Sex
  6. Family Status
  7. Disability

Landlords should keep in mind that disability refers to both mental or physical disability. Also, denying housing to a pregnant woman or a family with small children can be grounds for a discrimination complaint under the family status clause. The Fair Housing Act covers these protected categories not only in the tenant selection process, but throughout the landlord/tenant relationship. For instance, when it comes to renewing a lease, the Fair Housing Act is still applicable.

Avoid Housing Discrimination Complaints in Rental Ads

The rise of digital advertising can be a double edged sword for landlords. While it’s easier to get the word out about your rental units and perhaps cast a wider net of potential tenants, it can also lead to language that can be considered discriminatory. Let’s consider the scenario of a landlord named Rita. Rita has a spectacular piece of waterfront property up for rent. The property has attracted a number of older retired couples in the past. Thus, Rita puts what she thinks is a harmless blurb in an ad stating that retired couples with no children would be given priority in the application process.

While it may seem like Rita is simply trying to cater to her past clientele of tenants, this ad’s language can be considered discriminatory against families with young children. One way to avoid this unintentionally discriminatory language is to focus rental ads on describing the rental property, rather than the preferred tenant. Landlords should also keep in mind that the anti-discrimination laws that cover an initial rental ad also apply to the tenant phone screening or in-person interview.

One helpful tip landlords can use to avoid housing discrimination complaints is to create a standard tenant screening process. This helps avoid the chance of screening some applicants with one standard while using a different standard for other applicants.

Consequences of a Housing Discrimination Complaint

The consequences of a housing discrimination complaint can be dire. Complaints are made to the Department of Housing and Urban Development or to the tenant’s state/local housing agency. After this complaint, an often times lengthy investigation follows. The process usually results in a compromise between the landlord and tenant. The landlord can move forward by agreeing to pay off the accusing tenant or the landlord can agree to rent the property to the tenant. However, if a compromise is not reached, the case can end up in court.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development will hold an administrative hearing to determine the validity of the discrimination complaint. Also, if this administrative hearing has not yet begun then the tenant can also sue the landlord at the state or federal level. A negative ruling can lead to the following penalties:

  1. Forced rental. The landlord may be forced to rent out the property in question to the accusing tenant.
  2. Pay for damages. The landlord may be forced to compensate the accusing tenant for emotional distress as well as any monetary losses caused by the tenant having to rent another property.
  3. Pay civil penalties. The landlord may be forced to pay a state fine. In some cases, the first offense starts at $16,000.
  4. Pay for punitive damages. In rare cases of extreme discrimination, the court can award the accuser with thousands of dollars in punitive damages and force the tenant to pay their attorney fees.

Be sure to check out our article, When Should a Landlord Hire a Lawyer?

Know Your Options

As you can see, housing discrimination complaints can be grounded in subtle actions or the language used by landlords in the tenant selection process. Landlords can guard themselves by knowing the seven protected categories and ensuring that their tenant selection process doesn’t discriminate against any of these categories. Landlords can also stick to a standardized selection process. If a housing discrimination complaint has been filed against you, be aware of your options.

You may also want to see our article, How Landlords Protect Themselves From Lawsuits.