If you believe that a landlord has unlawfully discriminated against you, you can try to work things out with the landlord, or you can take advantage of the powerful federal and state antidiscrimination laws.
Your options include:
If successful, these strategies may force the landlord to do one or more of the following:
Before you can make an intelligent decision about what strategy to pursue, you need to sit down and ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve. Negotiation may be your best option, or you may want to go straight to court. Before making a final decision as to which path to take, ask for the opinion of a trusted and reasonable friend. Discrimination can be a highly emotional subject, and it’s always a good idea to seek the counsel of someone who is not involved.
If you simply want the offensive or unfair behavior to stop, and aren’t interested in seeking compensation for your expenses, inconvenience, or humiliation, it doesn’t make sense to file a complaint or lawsuit right away. A frank discussion with the landlord, perhaps in the company of a mediator or other neutral third party, may work better than a full-frontal legal assault. If informal techniques don’t work, you still can sue or complain to a government agency.
If negotiation hasn’t worked, or if you feel that compensation is necessary, a lawsuit may be the necessary course of action. But be forewarned: Lawsuits and complaints to fair housing agencies are adversarial, miserable, drawn-out procedures. If you’ve decided you want to file a complaint with a fair housing agency or to sue the landlord, you need to evaluate the strength of your case. The following guidelines will help you judge how strong or weak a case you have.
You may file a discrimination complaint with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) if you believe a federal law has been violated. Similarly, you can file with a state antidiscrimination agency if your state’s antidiscrimination law has been violated. Some areas also have local fair housing agencies that handle complaints.
To get started, go to the HUD website, where you'll find a chart listing HUD regional offices and their phone numbers. For information on state and local housing discrimination complaint procedures, contact your state fair housing agency.
A complaint to HUD must be filed within one year of the alleged violation. HUD will investigate the allegation and, if it concludes that there is a basis for your claim, will attempt a conciliation (compromise) between you and the landlord. If a compromise isn’t reached, HUD will bring the case before an administrative law judge who, without a jury, will decide the matter and may award you money damages or order the landlord to take appropriate action. State and local laws may have different procedures, including shorter filing deadlines, than those used by HUD.
If you have experienced clear and outrageous discrimination, going directly to court may be quicker and more rewarding than going to a government agency. You’ll need the help of an experienced lawyer if you choose this route. If you file in federal court, you must do so within two years of the alleged violation.
Your lawyer may ask the court for an immediate order, called a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction, that orders the landlord to do (or not to do) something (such as offer you the rental or cease treating you in a negative way) pending a full trial. Often, cases settle after an order like this is made.
You’ll need to understand how lawyers typically charge for these types of cases. You may be asked to pay an up-front amount called a retainer, or the lawyer may take the case “on contingency,” which means that she’ll take a certain percent (usually 20% to 40%) if you win.