Is discrimination prohibited when renting a place to live?

To protect everyone's right to be treated fairly and to help people find adequate housing, Congress and state legislatures passed laws prohibiting discrimination, most notably the federal Fair Housing Acts.

The Federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibit landlords from choosing or rejecting tenants (or treating tenants differently) on the basis of a group characteristic such as:

  • race
  • religion
  • ethnic background or national origin
  • sex
  • familial status (including age)
  • the fact that the prospective tenant has children (except in certain designated senior housing), or
  • mental or physical disability.

In addition, some state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on a person's marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity; or because an applicant or tenant receives financial assistance from the government. And some cities and counties have added other criteria, such as one's personal appearance.

On the other hand, landlords are allowed to select tenants using criteria that are based on valid business reasons, such as requiring a minimum income or positive references from previous landlords, as long as these standards are applied equally to all tenants.

A tenant who thinks that a landlord has broken a federal fair housing law should contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency that enforces the Fair Housing Act. To find the nearest office, call HUD's Fair Housing Information Clearinghouse at 800-343-3442, or check the HUD website at HUD will provide a complaint form and will decide whether to pursue the claim. A tenant must file a complaint within one year of the alleged discriminatory act. If HUD decides that the complaint may have merit, it will appoint a mediator to negotiate with the landlord and tenant and reach a settlement (called a "conciliation"). If a settlement can't be reached, the fair housing agency will hold an administrative hearing to determine whether discrimination has occurred.

If the discrimination is a violation of a state housing law, the tenant may file a complaint with the state agency in charge of enforcing the law. (In California, for example, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforces the state's two fair housing laws.)

Instead of filing a complaint with HUD or a state agency, tenants may file lawsuits directly in federal or state court. 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 the tenant had to pay as a result of being turned down, and damages for humiliation and emotional distress.

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