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 everything from security deposit limits to when you must hire a resident property manager. 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.
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 for legitimate business reasons, such as:
This doesn't mean that anything goes. Landlords must comply with federal, state, and local fair housing laws when choosing tenants. 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) can result in costly discrimination complaints and lawsuits.
Landlords are not free to discriminate against prospective tenants based on their race, religion, ethnic background or national origin, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), 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 (2023).)
For details on federal antidiscrimination laws, visit the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) website. Look specifically for HUD's California rental resources. You can also file a fair housing complaint online, call HUD at 800-669-9777, or email.
In addition to the protected categories under federal law, California also prohibits discrimination on the basis of:
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.
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), 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.
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 might have to pay punitive damages of thousands of dollars, plus the tenant's attorneys' fees. You can get additional information on penalties from HUD or DFEH (see contact information above).
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 Lawyer. Also, check out Nolo's Legal Resources for Tenants and our article on how to find legal aid and pro bono representation.
For more information on discrimination laws in California, see The California Landlord's Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities (Nolo). Landlords in other states should see Every Landlord's Legal Guide (Nolo).