As a landlord or property manager, you’re likely familiar with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (FHA). The FHA was created to ensure anyone searching for a place to live has a fair chance at finding one, without fear of discrimination based on their protected class. Although it wasn’t the first law of its kind (the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963, among others, helped pave its way) the FHA has made the largest impact on the rental housing industry. Please note that this is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.
The FHA was created during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, prohibiting discrimination in housing decisions based on seven key factors: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. Discrimination based on any of these factors is illegal. This includes circumstances like refusing to rent a home, using different qualifying criteria, instigating separate rules or prices for rent or late fees, or other types of discriminatory behavior. Additionally, discrimination would include things like harassment, threats, retaliation, or refusing to provide repairs or maintenance.
Most types of housing are covered under the FHA; the following types of housing may be exempt in very limited circumstances:
- Owner-occupied buildings with four or less units
- Single-family homes sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent
- Housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members
Advertising vacancies is one of the first steps to finding the right tenant, however, you should be aware that discriminatory advertisements are also prohibited by the FHA.
Some examples of discriminatory advertising include:
- “No young men”
- “Females preferred”
- “White applicants only”
These are all obviously discriminatory, but discrimination in an ad can also be subtle and completely unintentional, like stating that the property is “perfect for single people or couples” or even “nice, quiet, mature neighborhood.”
When writing an ad for your property, keep the focus on the property – not on preferred tenants or directed towards a certain group of applicants. Instead, talk about the features, like how many bedrooms there are, the size of the yard, or that the property has new appliances. When talking about the neighborhood, focus on nearby attractions, such as parks, shopping centers, or services.
Tenant Screening and Interviews
Likewise, it’s important to avoid discrimination while talking to potential applicants. If you’re like many landlords, your first step in tenant screening likely begins with talking to the applicant before you decide to move onto a credit or background check. This might be in person during the showing of the property or via a phone call, text, or email. However you’re communicating, it’s important not to make any inadvertent discriminatory remarks, such as:
- Do you have a service dog?
- Do you have kids?
- Do you like the church in our neighborhood?
While these questions may not be purposefully discriminatory, they could be interpreted as such. Instead, keep all questions and comments directly related to the property and the terms of your lease or rental agreement.
Additional Protected Classes
In addition to federally protected classes, some states have added to the list. California, for example, has extended housing protection laws to include the following groups:
- Sexual orientation
- Marital status
- Source of income
- Arbitrary characteristics (such as tattoos, hair color, etc.)
- Gender identity and expression
It’s not just state governments that have additional protected classes, either. New York City has its own set of protected classes, which includes:
- Alienage or citizenship status
- Creed, religion, or race
- Family status
- Gender or gender identity
- Lawful occupation
- Lawful source of income
- Marital or partnership status
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
- Immigration status
- Military service
- Presence of children
- Status of victim of domestic abuse, sexual violence, or stalking
Since laws can vary from state to state – and even from city to city – it’s always recommended to stay up-to-date on local laws in order to protect yourself and your properties from risk. This is especially important if you have rental properties located in different states. By staying informed and updating your policies as necessary, you can prevent potentially costly legal trouble! You may also want to consider working with a lawyer when determining how to rent and advertise your properties to ensure all your legal bases are covered.
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