The Fair Housing Act (FHA) (42 U.S. Code § § 3601-3619 and 3631) protects tenants (and home buyers) against housing discrimination. As a federal law, the FHA applies across the country, including all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as all U.S. territories and possessions.
Within this broad geographic jurisdiction, the FHA applies to most housing situations. As a landlord, you need to pay close attention to the FHA, because chances are it applies to your rental properties.
The FHA applies to most—but not all—types of housing. Types of housing excluded from the FHA include:
It's important to note that even if your property is exempt from the FHA because of one of the reasons listed above, you must still comply with the law's ban on issuing discriminatory statements, notices, or advertising (42 U.S. Code § 3603(b)).
If you determine that the FHA doesn't apply to your property (or even if you determine that it does), be aware that there may be a local or state fair housing law that does, and it might prohibit additional forms of discrimination or cover a greater number of properties than the FHA does.
For example, while the FHA generally doesn't apply to owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units, Massachusetts' fair housing law generally applies to all but owner-occupied, two-family houses. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B, § 4).
Even if the FHA doen't apply to your property, there are many other reasons to not discriminate. Aside from fairness considerations and concerns about penalties for violating fair housing laws, many fair housing advocates stress that by being more inclusive you stand a better chance of growing your business and attracting quality tenants. Finally, the policies you create and the manner in which you enforce them could affect your reputation as both a landlord and a human being.
See What Kind of Housing Discrimination Is Illegal? for more information. Also, the Rental Applications and Tenant Screening section of Nolo.com includes several useful articles on how to legally choose tenants and avoid fair housing complaints and lawsuits. Finally, check out Every Landlord's Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner and Janet Portman (Nolo) for detailed advice on housing discrimination and how to avoid fair housing lawsuits.