Fighting Rental Housing Discrimination FAQ

Learn about illegal housing discrimination, including how to file a complaint.

What kinds of subtle actions might be illegal discrimination by the landlord?

The Fair Housing Acts prohibit landlords from taking any of the following actions based on race, religion, or any other protected category:

  • falsely denying that a rental unit is available to some applicants
  • advertising that indicates a preference based on group characteristic, such as skin color
  • setting more restrictive standards, such as higher income, for certain tenants
  • refusing to reasonably accommodate the needs of disabled tenants, such as allowing a guide dog, hearing dog, or other service animal
  • setting different terms for some tenants, such as adopting an inconsistent policy of responding to late rent payments, or
  • terminating a tenancy for a discriminatory reason.

For more information, see Every Landlord's Guide to Finding Great Tenants, by Janet Portman (Nolo).

How can a renter file a discrimination complaint?

A tenant who thinks that a landlord has broken a federal fair housing law should contact a local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency that enforces the Fair Housing Act, or check the HUD website at www.hud.gov. (A tenant must file the complaint within one year of the alleged discriminatory act.)

HUD will provide a complaint form (tenants can fill the form out online) and will investigate and decide whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the fair housing law has been broken. If the answer is yes, HUD will typically appoint a mediator to negotiate with the landlord and reach a settlement (called a "conciliation"). If a settlement is later broken, HUD will recommend that the Attorney General file a lawsuit.

If the discrimination is a violation of a state fair 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.

Also, 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 paid as a result of being turned down, an order directing the landlord to offer the rental to the tenant, and compensation for humiliation or emotional distress.

What types of housing discrimination are renters protected from?

The federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act (42 U.S. Code § § 3601-3619, 3631) prohibit landlords from choosing tenants on the basis of a group characteristic such as:

  • race
  • religion
  • ethnic background or national origin
  • sex
  • familial status, including having children or being pregnant (except in certain designated senior housing), or
  • a mental or physical disability.

In addition, some state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on a person's marital status, age, or sexual orientation.

Landlords can always 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.

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