Federal laws make it illegal for a landlord to refuse to rent to a tenant or to engage in any other kind of discrimination (such as requiring higher rent or larger deposits) on the basis of any group characteristic such as race, color, religion, national origin, familial status (includes families with children younger than 18 and pregnant women), disability, and gender (includes sexual harassment). In some states and localities, additional characteristics, such as gender identity, are protected. A landlord who attempts to or actually terminates someone's tenancy for a discriminatory reason, or who discriminates in providing services such as the use of a pool or other common area, is also acting illegally.
The discriminated-against tenant can use the landlord's behavior as a defense to an eviction lawsuit as well as a basis for suing the landlord for monetary compensation and an order directing the landlord to stop the discriminatory behavior. Even an innocent owner whose agent or manager discriminates without the owner's knowledge can be sued and found liable. A landlord who unlawfully discriminates against a tenant or prospective tenant may end up in federal or state court, including small claims court, or before a state or federal housing agency, facing a tenant's allegations of discrimination.
Most of these cases involve amounts in excess of the small claims maximum. If you've experienced discrimination, your most effective remedy is to file an administrative claim through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or to sue the offending landlord in formal court. For more information on how to spot and prove discrimination, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo). To find a lawyer who handles this type of lawsuit, contact a tenants' rights or civil rights organization in your area.