When you're renting out your property, it's important you understand fair housing laws. These laws apply to a variety of landlords from owners of a single unit to owners of 100-unit complexes.

To make sure you're complying with fair housing laws, we're going to explain these laws and how you can abide by them.

What is Fair Housing?

Fair housing laws ensure all individuals have equal opportunity when they're searching for housing. This opportunity applies to renters, buyers, and those looking to finance their housing.

Fair housing also provides equal opportunities to individuals when they're applying for housing assistance or community development funds, appraising their home, seeking mortgage lending, or entering their real estate with a listing service.

What is the Federal Fair Housing Act?

The United States Federal Fair Housing Act was established to educate and guide both landlords, lenders, renters, and buyers on discriminatory housing practices.

While the movement for fair housing began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act was signed in 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This act is also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. At it's signing, the act prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

In 1974, the act was amended to forbid discrimination based on sex. It was amended again in 1988 to prohibit discrimination based on disability and family structure.

Simply put, the Fair Housing Act makes housing discrimination illegal and aims to provide fair housing choices to all.

Who Oversees Fair Housing?

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees fair housing. They are responsible for dealing with fair housing complaints and answering questions about federal fair housing laws. Each year, HUD releases an annual report that provides information on fair housing complaints.

If you have a question about fair housing, you can always contact HUD. They are the experts regarding federal fair housing laws and fair housing rights.

What Type of Discrimination Does the Fair Housing Act Prohibit?

Federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on the following protected classes.

Chart describing housing complaints by protected class
Fair housing complaints are labeled based on protected class. | Photo credit: National Low Income Housing Coalition

Race

Discriminating based on race is illegal. This forbids landlords for writing "X need not apply" on real estate listings. It also forbids landlords from asking about race on applications and discarding applications based on an applicant's race.

Religion

Landlords cannot choose their tenants based on their religious practices. It's also illegal to advertise a unit as "a great place for Christians" or something similar, as this suggests that the landlord prefers Christian tenants.

National Origin

When renting or selling real estate, you cannot show preferential treatment based on national origin. This includes discriminating based on language, since language is a component of national origin.

Sex

You cannot use sex to determine who you rent to. This includes suggesting a particular unit is safer for a female or directing a male to a ground floor unit you think is more dangerous.

Familial Status

Familial status refers to the makeup of a family, including the presence of children. Housing providers cannot choose to rent to an individual without children over a couple with two small children. This protected class also involves pregnant women.

Disability

People involved in the rental of housing must not discriminate against disabled individuals. Landlords must also provide disabled individuals with reasonable accommodations and modifications.

What Type of Discrimination Might Local Laws or State Laws Prohibit?

While you must abide by federal fair housing laws, you also might have to follow state fair housing laws and local fair housing laws. Depending on where you live, it may be illegal to discriminate based on the following.

  • Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Citizenship
  • Age: elderly, young adults, older persons
  • Criminal history
  • Source of income, including Section 8 vouchers
  • Marital status

Before you list your rental unit, make sure to check your local and state laws regarding fair housing.

Are There Exemptions to the Fair Housing Act?

Yes. However, these exemptions generally don't apply to private landowners renting their property.

Possible exemptions include the following:

  • Housing designated as 55+: This allows real estate managers to only rent to individuals older than 55.
  • Religious organizations: Organizations are allowed to provide housing only to members of their religion.
  • Private clubs: These clubs are allowed to deny housing to individuals who are not club members.
  • Local law occupancy standards: If local laws state a maximum occupancy of three individuals, you can limit occupancy to three individuals.
  • Owner-occupied housing: If an owner lives in a unit with less than four total units, they are exempt from fair housing laws.

Before you assume you are exempt from the Fair Housing Act, check with HUD. It's better to be safe rather than sorry.

What to Know About Renting to Families with Children

Family in home
You cannot base who you rent to on the presence of absence of children. | Photo credit: Pablo Merchán Montes

The Fair Housing Act lists familial status as a protected class. This means that you cannot discriminate based on the presence of children.

While you may think one unit is better suit for families than others because it's on the ground floor, you must show families all units. Also, make sure you don't increase the rent due to the presence of children.

Figuring Out Max Occupancy

While you cannot discriminate based on familial status, you are able to deny renting to a group if the number of people exceeds max occupancy.

Some cities have regulations regarding the number of individuals or unrelated individuals that can live in a certain unit. These regulations are generally aimed at keeping certain areas as single-family homes rather than multifamily homes or units with unrelated individuals. Check with your local government to learn more about these regulations.

If you don't have any local or state laws regarding max occupancy, you can still establish a maximum number of people allowed in a unit. The following method is useful in determining the max occupancy in regards to the rental of a dwelling.

The Keating Memorandum

This memo was released by HUD in 1991 in an attempt to clarify their position on max occupancy. It states that two people per bedroom is a generally accepted rule. However, there are exceptions. For example, two adults and an infant can live in a one-bedroom apartment.

Accommodating Disabilities

Federal law provides protections for persons with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act protects against discriminatory housing practices, and the Americans with Disabilities Act provides further protection.

There is often confusion around what constitutes a disability and what accommodations landlords must provide. In fact, more than half of the fair housing complaints in 2017 were related to disability.

It's important to note that disabilities may be physical or mental. The following are considered disabilities that are covered by the Fair Housing Act:

  • Visual impairments, including blindness
  • Hearing impairments, including deafness
  • Mobility impairments
  • Mental illness
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug addiction (except addiction caused by current illegal drug use)
  • Anything that limits
  • major life activities

What Does Housing Discrimination Look Like?

There are two main types of housing discrimination: intentional discrimination and unintentional discrimination.

Intentional discrimination

This type of discrimination occurs when someone treats a renter negatively due to their protected class. If you reject someone's application because of their race or charge them a higher rent because of their disability, this is considered intentional discrimination.

Unintentional discrimination

Discrimination occurs even when people aren't actively trying to discriminate. This is known as unintentional discrimination. Examples include saying a rental unit is great for married couples without kids.

How Can Landlords Provide Fair Housing?

Now that you understand the basics of fair housing, let's explore how it applies to you, as a host. When abiding by fair housing laws, it's important to understand how fair housing applies to different parts of the rental process. These include advertising, answering questions, pricing, accepting applications, screening, renting, and providing accommodations.

Advertising

You want to find great tenants for your rental. However, it's important that you use non-discriminatory language when you're advertising your unit. While you are allowed to list requirements including the ability to pay rent and the ability to provide references, you cannot use language that discriminates against protected classes.

For example, you cannot say the following:

  • Perfect spot for an older, quiet couple.
  • English speakers only.
  • Not suitable for people with disabilities.
  • No kids allowed.

As you can see, discrimination can be subtle. When you're advertising your property, focus on providing information about the property rather than thoughts about who might be an ideal renter.

Answering Questions

When you receive questions from prospective tenants, you must answer each question honestly, no matter who is asking the question. For example, if you're asked about the available units, you must show all interested parties all available units. You cannot provide different terms to different individuals.

Pricing

Pricing must remain consistent for all prospective tenants. For example, you cannot increase the price for a family with small children. Also, you cannot decrease the price of your unit to appeal to a certain class.

Accepting Applications

You must accept applications from all interested and qualified parties. It is okay to turn down applications if a party is unable to pay the listed rent. However, you cannot deny applications based on any of the protected classes.

Screening

When deciding to rent your unit, you cannot discriminate based on any of the protected classes. When you are screening tenants, you should not ask any of the following questions:

  • Do you have children?
  • Were you born in the US?
  • What's your race?
  • Do you have any mental or physical disabilities?
  • Are you looking for a certain type of religious worship center?

A good tip is to ask the same questions to all of your tenants:

  • Do you have any pets?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Can you provide contact information for previous landlords?

Once you decide to rent out your unit, you cannot discriminate based on any of the protected classes.

Renting

Once you are renting your unit, you must continue to abide by fair housing laws. You must provide timely repairs and maintenance for all tenants, regardless of their race, religion, etc.

During all parts of the rental process, fair housing laws, as well as other laws, protects individuals from sexual harassment. If an individual resists sexual harassment, landlords cannot retaliate by discriminating against the individual.

Also, you cannot evict a tenant just because of their protected class.

Providing Accommodations

Wheelchair ramp in home
Reasonable modifications include adding a ramp to make spaces wheelchair accessible. | Photo credit: Kent Slade

As you know, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on disability. This includes both physical and mental disabilities.

If you rent to a disabled individual, you must make reasonable accommodations and allow for reasonable modifications. These modifications are paid for by the renter.

Some common accommodations and modifications include:

  • Installing a ramp to make the unit wheelchair accessible.
  • Allowing a caregiver or service animal to live in the unit.
  • Providing an accessible parking spot.

Providing Fair Housing

Now that you know the basics of fair housing, make sure you follow all fair housing laws. Make sure to check with any local and state laws as well.

When you're renting, aim to provide all potential tenants with respect. After all, respect helps build strong relationships and communities.