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What protections does the FHA give renters?

The Fair Housing Act lists certain protected classes. A protected class is a group of people protected from discrimination by law. This means that landlords may not treat anyone differently based on their:

  • Race.
  • National origin.
  • Religion.
  • Sex.
  • Familial status.
  • Disability.

Most types of housing are covered, but these might not be:

  • Buildings with four units or less, one of which the owner lives in.
  • Single-family homes rented or sold by the owner without using an agent.
  • Housing owned by religious groups or private clubs that only members can live in.

Discrimination is treating people unfairly because of certain traits, and it happens in many ways. For example, a building owner might refuse to approve applicants who are members of a protected class. They might hold some applicants to higher standards than others. They may turn away members of a protected class by saying a unit is no longer available. Or they might steer someone to a different property based upon their assumptions. The FHA protects these classes from discrimination during the application process. It also protects existing tenants from discriminatory actions like wrongful evictions, harassment, or failure to provide services. These kinds of actions can reduce tenants' quality of life or make them want to move out.

Do state laws give more protection?

The FHA is a federal law. States can and do make stricter rules under their own fair housing laws. They may add more types of protections or cover more protected classes. Cities and counties can also do the same. Local governments typically cannot reduce the protections found in federal or state law.

Common protected classes added by state and local laws include:

  • Sexual orientation.
  • Gender identity.
  • Source of income.
  • Ancestry.
  • Military status.
  • Age.

Also, states may include smaller buildings that owners live in or single-family homes in their fair housing laws. States can also extend the federal protections to the types of homes not covered by federal law. Some states also extend protections to any advertised home, not just homes that are listed with an agent.

How can I avoid fair housing complaints?

Tenants may file a fair housing complaint when they think a landlord is treating them unfairly. To avoid fair housing complaints, you should understand your legal obligations and how to put them into practice. Following clearly defined steps can help you avoid treating applicants or tenants in a way that could lead to a fair housing complaint. It can also show applicants and tenants that you are trying to treat them fairly. These are some steps you may find helpful:

  • Do your tenant screening the same way every time. Many smaller landlords go by their gut feelings, but this can leave them open to discrimination claims. A landlord with a defined process that never changes can show the exact non-discriminatory reasons used to approve or deny each tenant.
  • Require the same information from all tenants. This also helps show the reasons for your decisions. It also prevents an applicant from saying you discriminated by requiring them to show more documents than everyone else.
  • Avoid language that might be seen as discriminatory in your housing ads. Stick to the facts about the property. Even something that seems innocent and positive can be a problem. For example, saying that buyers or renters of a particular religion are preferred due to "proximity to a place of worship could be seen as turning away tenants of a different faith.
  • Treat all tenants the same. This includes the way you give warnings and when you file for eviction if they break the lease.

If you are concerned about your screening process, or policies as a landlord, you may want to ask a lawyer to review how you do things.

How can I avoid a complaint if I act against a protected applicant or tenant for non-discriminatory reasons?

One of the best ways to protect yourself from complaints is to record everything. Keep detailed records for all your tenants, not just for tenants you have had past issues with or who are members of a protected class. When a tenant requests an accommodation, like allowing a service animal, or makes an informal complaint about discrimination, landlords need to take these seriously.

You can keep records of every time you talk with your tenants by voice or in writing. You might store copies of tenant complaints, lease violation notices, detailed notes about verbal warnings, and records of any steps taken toward eviction.

For example, you may have a tenant with disabilities who often gets noise complaints from other tenants for playing loud music throughout the night. You may be concerned that they will accuse you of discrimination if you try to evict them. If you can show proof of each time they broke their lease, and that you handled violations by other tenants the same way, their complaint may have little chance of success.

What should I do if I get a fair housing complaint?

Fair housing violations can come with big fines. The tenant or applicant may have a right to make you pay them for the legal violations. Also, the federal government can fine you. If a judge rules against you, the maximum fine for a first offense under federal law is over $20,000. Having a record of fair housing violations can also make other tenants not want to rent from you.

If you get a fair housing complaint from a government agency, it is wise to pay close attention to when you need to respond. Generally, you must respond, or you may lose automatically. For this reason, you may want to talk to a lawyer as soon as you can. Also, it can be helpful to save any records, such as emails, text messages, or letters. If you have not received a complaint but someone threatens one, you may want to take steps as if you have received an actual complaint.

To learn more about how to respond to a fair housing complaint, or how to protect yourself from complaints, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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