Landlord Responsibilities Under Fair Housing Laws in California

What every California landlord needs to know about fair housing complaints.

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Your success as a landlord in California depends on knowing and complying with dozens of state (plus federal and local) laws that affect your property management business, including security deposit limits (one month’s rent for unfurnished rentals three months’ if furnished) to when you must hire a resident property manager (required for apartment complexes of 16 or more units).  Among the major landlord responsibilities is compliance with antidiscrimination laws.

Here’s an overview of the key fair housing laws that affect California rental properties—and consequences for landlords who violate these laws.

How to Avoid Discrimination When Choosing Tenants in California

Before you place an ad on Craigslist or put a “For Rent” sign in front of your rental house or apartment building, it is crucial that you understand fair housing laws and what you can say and do when selecting tenants. This includes how you advertise a rental, the questions you ask on a rental application or when interviewing potential tenants, the screening fee you charge tenants, and how you deal with tenants who rent from you.  

The bottom line is that California landlords are legally free to reject applicants who have a bad credit history, negative references, from previous landlords, past behavior, such as consistently paying rent late, or other factors that make them a bad risk.  This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Landlords must comply with federal, state, and local fair housing laws when choosing tenants. And failure to know and follow these laws (for example, by falsely stating that a rental unit is unavailable or terminating a tenancy for a discriminatory reason) may result in costly discrimination complaints and lawsuits.

Federal Fair Housing Laws

Landlords are not free to discriminate against prospective tenants based on their race, religion, ethnic background or national origin, sex, familial status (such as having children under age 18) or physical or mental disability.  These are requirements of federal fair housing law (the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as amended (42 U.S. Code §§ 3601-3619 and 3631)).  

For details on federal antidiscrimination laws, , check the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD website; while there, check out HUD’s California rental resources. You can also contact HUD’s California office in San Francisco at 415-489-6400.

California State and Local Fair Housing Laws

In addition to following federal laws, California landlords must comply with the state’s Unruh Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act, as well as relevant court decisions, that prohibit discrimination on the basis of the following:

  • sexual orientation (Cal. Government Code § 12920 and following)
  • marital status (Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Commission, 12 Cal. 4th 1143, 51 Cal. Rptr. 2d 700 (1996), and
  • personal characteristic or trait, such as physical attributes  or a tenant’s receipt of public assistance (Harris v. Capital Growth Investors XIV, 52 Cal. 3d 1142 (1991).

Some city and county ordinances in California may forbid additional types of housing discrimination.

For details on state fair housing laws, contact the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the nonprofit housing counseling agency Project Sentinel.

How Courts and Agencies Handle Discrimination Complaints in California

Tenants in California have several avenues for fighting housing discrimination. These include filing an administrative complaint with HUD or the California DFEH. These agencies will typically investigate the complaint (a process which may take many months), attempt to reach a compromise (conciliation agreement), and/or hold an administrative hearing to determine whether discrimination has occurred.

A tenant may also sue the landlord in state or federal court, as long as an administrative hearing has not yet begun or the tenant has not already signed a conciliation agreement.

Penalties for Housing Discrimination

A court or housing agency that finds that discrimination has taken place may order you to rent the particular rental to the person who has brought the discrimination charge, or to pay damages to an applicant you illegally rejected. For especially outrageous discrimination, you may have to pay punitive damages of thousands of dollars, plus the tenant’s attorney fees. You can get additional information on penalties from HUD or DFEH (see contact information above).

Getting Legal Help for a Discrimination Lawsuit or Complaint

Defending a housing discrimination lawsuit or administrative complaint can be quite complicated, and typically requires an attorney’s help. For advice on finding a good lawyer, see the Nolo article How to Find an Excellent Attorney. Also, check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory for California landlords who specialize in landlord-tenant law.

Resources on California Landlord-Tenant Law

For more information on discrimination laws in California, see The California Landlord’s Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities, by David Brown and Janet Portman (Nolo). Landlords in other states should see Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner, and Janet Portman, also published by Nolo).

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