Rental housing discrimination is something all landlords and property managers must stay away from. It will put you and your business in danger of liability. Not only that, but it will also tarnish your credibility and reputation in the rental market.
What Is Rental Housing Discrimination?
Rental housing discrimination, otherwise known simply as housing discrimination, happens when a landlord or property manager rejects a tenant based on certain factors. According to the federal Fair Housing Act, you are prohibited from making housing unavailable due to a person’s race/color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability.
Tenant discrimination laws are quite strict. In fact, you don’t even need to exhibit intentional discrimination to get in trouble for it. Simply making a discriminatory or offensive comment, whether deliberate or not, is disallowed, even if you had delivered it in a joking manner.
Types of Rental Housing Discrimination
Discrimination in rental housing comes in varying forms. It is not limited to denying a prospective tenant accommodation out of prejudicial factors.
You can also discriminate against an existing tenant in a number of ways. Here are just some examples of discriminatory behavior in rental housing:
- Including preferences or discriminatory restrictions in a rental ad, such as only looking for applicants of a certain race
- Removing an applicant from consideration during the screening process based on a racialized name
- Refusal to rent based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or familial status (someone with children)
- Differential treatment of any kind related to a landlord or property manager’s responsibilities during occupancy, such as refusing to make necessary repairs
- Denying access to recreational facilities out of prejudice
- Refusing to allow a disabled person’s service animal on the property due to a no-pets policy
- Ending a tenancy due to a discriminatory reason
- Denying reasonable accommodations for a disabled tenant
Exceptions to the Rule
Like most laws, there are exceptions to the Fair Housing Act. For instance, senior housing is a type of exempt property provided one of the following applies:
- HUD has determined that the housing is intended for and occupied by senior residents under a federal, state, or local program
- Residents occupying the property are all 62 years old or older
- Residents 55 years old or older occupy 80 percent of the tenanted units and the public knows that the dwelling is designed for seniors aged 55 or older
Additionally, federal Fair Housing laws may not apply to owner-inhabited housing with four or fewer units, some single-family homes rented out, and some housing under the ownership of religious or private organizations. Keep in mind, though, that state and local laws may still apply even to properties exempt on a federal level.
Legal Reasons to Turn Down Tenants
The best way to protect yourself from liability is to adopt a tenant screening and selection process that is purely objective and without bias. Using a fair process, you can eliminate applicants that don’t meet your impartial criteria.
Typically, the screening process involves reviewing a prospective tenant’s criminal background, employment status, credit history, and the like. For instance, if an applicant has a really bad credit score, you will naturally worry about their ability to pay rent on time. The same goes for applicants with a history of bankruptcies or past felonies.
When screening potential tenants, make sure to ask for references. Contact past landlords to verify any red flags, such as habitual nonpayment of rent, violent behavior, or recurring property damages.
What Can Tenants Do?
Tenants are not powerless when it comes to rental housing discrimination. In fact, tenants have a moral obligation to report landlords or property managers for prejudiced actions or behaviors.
In doing so, they can ensure other tenants don’t go through the same unfair treatment. If you feel you have been discriminated against by a landlord or property manager, here are a couple of measures you can take:
1. File a Fair Housing Discrimination Complaint
Filing a complaint with federal authorities is perhaps the most obvious course of action. Whether you are a tenant or a prospective tenant whose Fair Housing rights were violated, you can lodge a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Keep in mind, though, that you must file the complaint within a year of the event.
After you file a complaint, HUD will open an investigation. HUD will either dismiss the claim or try to reach a conciliation agreement between you and your landlord or property manager. Some cases end there. But, unsuccessful conciliations will require further action.
In such a case, a judge will perform an administrative hearing to decide whether your discrimination claims are valid or baseless. If a judge determines that discrimination occurred, you can collect damages.
Alternatively, you may also choose to file a complaint with state or local authorities. Anti-discrimination laws also exist on these levels, though they vary depending on the location. Make sure to check your state laws to learn the statute of limitations.
2. Sue for Rental Housing Discrimination
Filing a private lawsuit is another option you can pursue in case of rental housing discrimination. You can do this on a federal or state level. Make sure to contact a capable attorney with experience handling discrimination claims, such as a civil rights attorney.
If the court finds your landlord or property manager guilty of discriminatory actions, you can receive actual damages, punitive damages, and damages for emotional distress. This can also cover attorney fees.
It is important to note that these two options are not mutually exclusive. You can still file a private lawsuit even after lodging a complaint with HUD, provided the latter did not result in a conciliation agreement or administrative hearing.
Property Owners Beware
Property owners must be careful of the property managers they hire. Even if you did not exhibit any discriminatory behavior, if your property manager does, a judge can still find you liable. This is why it is important to do a thorough check of all your property management prospects before you hire anyone.
Interview different companies, read reviews from past clients, and personally contact their references. Enduring a lengthy selection process is infinitely better than going to court.
Upholding Your Social Responsibility
Discrimination is a crime that remains largely unreported. As our society experiences a shift in social justice awareness, though, more and more people are placing blame or making an effort to change. Landlords and property managers should follow suit, making sure not to practice rental housing discrimination in any way, shape, or form.
Are you looking for credible property management companies, HOA management companies, or real estate agents? Start your search using Florida Property Management’s online directory.