How to Fight Housing Discrimination

Fair housing complaints and other options available to tenants who feel they have been unlawfully discriminated against

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:

  • trying to negotiate an acceptable settlement with the landlord, possibly with the help of a neutral mediator

  • filing a complaint with a federal, state, or local government fair housing agency, or

  • filing a lawsuit in federal or state court.

If successful, these strategies may force the landlord to do one or more of the following:

  • Rent you a particular unit.

  • Pay you “actual” or “compensatory” damages, which cover what you spent to find another rental, such as money spent on another apartment-finding service or taking several hours off from your job. These damages also cover any additional rent you had to pay elsewhere. In addition, you are entitled to be compensated for any humiliation or emotional distress (called “special damages”) that you suffered due to the landlord’s bad acts. If the landlord’s conduct was truly awful, this amount can be substantial.

  • Pay you punitive damages, which essentially punishes the landlord for especially outrageous, intentional discrimination.

  • Pay your attorney fees and court costs, if any.

  • Pay a penalty to the government. 

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.

Negotiate With the Landlord

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.

File a Fair Housing Complaint or Lawsuit

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.

  • The more serious the harm you suffered, the more likely you are to win. Be realistic in your assessment: A muttered racial slur will not offend a judge as much as a landlord’s flat-out statement that he will not rent to you because you’re Jewish or black.

  • Repeated acts of discrimination are more likely to earn the wrath of a judge than a single incident. If you can point to a pattern of illegal discrimination rather than an isolated incident, you’re way ahead. And don’t forget that judges have long memories—your landlord may be well known in the local HUD office for his behavior, which will make your case all the more plausible.

  • Although unintentional discrimination is as illegal as intentional acts, it is harder to prove. For example, although an occupancy policy of “one person per bedroom” has the effect of discriminating against families, it’s harder to prove this than if the landlord had a stated policy of “no children.”

  • If you have only your word against the landlord’s, you have a weak case. As with any lawsuit, you need independent, physical evidence of your claims—like witnesses who will testify, newspaper ads, or house rules that establish the discriminatory policy—to corroborate your word.

Complaining to a Fair Housing Agency

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. 

Filing a Discrimination Lawsuit in Federal or State Court

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.

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