Tenants who want to hold their landlord accountable for illegal discriminatory housing practices have two main options: filing a complaint with an administrative agency, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and filing a lawsuit against their landlord. If you're planning to sue your landlord for housing discrimination, here's what you need to know.
Federal, state, and local housing laws all prohibit various kinds of discrimination against tenants. The most common kinds of discrimination—race and disability—are prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Acts. (42 U.S. Code §§ 3601-3619 and 3631.) Most state laws also make the same forms of discrimination illegal, and in some cases go even further—for example, by prohibiting housing discrimination based on source of income. Local anti-discrimination laws may also come into play.
Tenants (current and prospective) have several ways to fight unlawful discrimination—including negotiating a settlement with a landlord (perhaps with a mediator's help) and filing a complaint with a government fair housing agency that may result in a conciliation agreement between landlord and tenant.
The more serious harm you suffered, the more likely you are to win your lawsuit. Landlords who practice intentional discrimination, such as making flat-out statements that they don't rent to people of a certain race or religion, are far more vulnerable to a fair housing charge than someone who unintentionally discriminates by letting only two people rent a two-bedroom apartment because they don't understand fair housing laws on occupancy limits.
If you want a landlord to rent you a particular apartment, you may find that filing a complaint with a fair housing agency is the best way to go; one result may be a conciliation agreement in which you agree to drop your complaint in exchange for the landlord's written agreement to rent you the apartment. On the other hand, if you're seeking damages for emotional distress caused by a landlord's discrimination, or punitive damages for especially blatant and intentional discrimination, a lawsuit may well be your best bet.
You may file a lawsuit in either federal or state court. If you have a strong case and can get a quick court order from a judge, your experience will be mercifully short. Or if your facts are compelling and your lawyer good, you might be able to settle for a sizable amount of money without going to trial. But not every case proceeds so easily. Landlords (and their insurance companies) may dig in their heels, resulting in months, or even years, before a case is settled or decided by a judge or jury.
HUD's State Information section is a great place to begin. Click on your state, then on "Get Rental Help," for a list of local organizations that provide a variety of housing services. Your state, county, or city government might also have housing discrimination resources on its website.
You'll likely need the help of a lawyer experienced handling discrimination cases if you plan to go directly to court to force the landlord to rent you the premises and pay you money damages. A lawyer can also help if you file a complaint with a fair housing agency. You may file a lawsuit in federal or state court even if you have filed a complaint with a fair housing agency (deciding whether to do both, and timing everything, is one of the reasons you'll need to hire a good lawyer). And a lawyer will be invaluable in negotiating a settlement agreement with a landlord, whether or not you end up filing a lawsuit.
Legal aid attorneys, hired by government-financed law clinics, may be available if you have very low income. But, for many people, hiring a private attorney will be your only option. If you have a strong case, an attorney might take it "on contingency" (you pay nothing up front but agree to give the attorney a percentage, such as 30%, of whatever you win or agree to in a settlement). Before getting started, learn what you can about hiring and working with an attorney, including how to find free or low-cost legal help and the different ways lawyers charge for their services.