Housing Discrimination and Fair Housing Laws
The Federal Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 – 3619) makes housing discrimination in the rental, sale, financing, or insuring of housing or housing-related services illegal if the discrimination is based on race, national origin, color, sex or gender, disability, religion, and familial status (presence of children under the age of 18). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces the Fair Housing Act by investigating complaints from individuals and community organization across the nation. If HUD determines that housing discrimination has occurred, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division can bring the case to Federal Court
The Florida Fair Housing Act (Florida Statutes §760.20-760.37) mirrors the federal Fair Housing Act and is enforced by the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) which investigates housing discrimination complaints for the state of Florida. The Florida Fair Housing Act does not provide new protected traits. However, additional protections may be available based on the county you live in.
Both acts allow you to file a housing discrimination complaint through HUD or through a local enforcement agency like the FCHR within 1 year of when the last act of discrimination occurred.
Additionally, you have 2 years from when the last act of discrimination occurred to file a housing discrimination complaint in Federal Court if you do not wish file through an agency.
If you believe that you have been discriminated against in housing and need legal advice or assistance, contact CLS (800-405-1417).
Read more to find out if you have been the subject of housing discrimination, and if so, what you can do about it.
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
When the Fair Housing Act was initially passed in 1968, one of its main purposes was to combat racial discrimination and promote equal access to housing opportunities. The Fair Housing Act (along with its amendments) states that property owners, financial institutions, and landlords may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
- Race refers to whether a person is White, Black/African American, Asian, American Indian or an Alaska Native, a Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or some mixture of two or more of these groups.
- Color refers to the visible color of a person’s skin, whether a person’s skin is light or dark. Color discrimination can involve someone of a different race or the same race. For example, if a landlord or other housing provider only rented to light-skinned African Americans, but not those who are darker-skinned, that would be an example of color discrimination, regardless of the race of the landlord.
- National origin refers to the country of a person’s birth or where their ancestors were born, as well as their ethnicity, culture, and language.
Unlike discrimination against some of the other protected classes, racial discrimination in the housing industry is not always easy to spot. Sometimes the victims of race-based housing discrimination are not even aware that they were treated any differently than any other buyer, renter, or tenant.
Regardless of how subtle or overt the discrimination is, federal and state law is on your side. Racial, color, or national origin discrimination takes many forms and is in no way limited to this list, but here are some examples of what it may look like:
- A landlord or seller with a listed property refuses to speak with you or allow you on the property in a face-to-face encounter;
- A landlord or seller with a listed property refuses to schedule an appointment with you;
- A landlord or seller changes the terms of the listed property or offers different terms to you than they do to others (such as raising the price, requiring more money in advance, etc.);
- A landlord or seller tells you their property is no longer available, yet it is still listed as “for rent” or “for sale”;
- A landlord or seller makes presumptions about your income, family status, or criminal history based upon your race, color, or national origin;
- A landlord has many listed rentals but refuses to show you certain units, will only show you the lower-quality units, or will only show you units near others of your same race, color, or national origin;
- A landlord or seller tells you that you might be more comfortable in a different neighborhood;
- Advertisements for a property show a preference for a specific race, color, or national origin; or
- A landlord only wants English-speaking tenants.
It is illegal for housing providers to discriminate against you based on your mental, physical, or intellectual disability. Actions such as denying you housing or a mortgage, denying a reasonable accommodation or modification request, or not providing accessible units for multi-family homes built after 1991 are considered discriminatory when based upon an individual’s disability.
A disability is defined in the Fair Housing Act as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s “major life activities.” Major life activities can include caring for one’s self, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.
If you require the use of a walker, a wheelchair, a service animal, or a personal-care attendant, you are protected under the law against housing discrimination.
Disabilities may also include mental or emotional illness, difficulties associated with aging, HIV/AIDS, recovering alcoholism or drug addiction. The Fair Housing Act does not protect those who use drugs illegally, only people who have successfully completed a treatment program are covered under the law (as described by the Housing Equality Center).
It is against the law to do any of the following based on disability:
- Refuse to rent or sell housing;
- Refuse to negotiate housing;
- Make housing unavailable or deny that housing is available;
- Set different terms, conditions or privileges for the sale or rental of housing, a mortgage, home loan, home insurance or any other housing transaction;
- Advertise in a discriminatory manner;
- Threaten, coerce, or intimidate anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others in exercising those rights; and
- Refuse to make reasonable accommodations or modifications.
A reasonable accommodation is a request to your housing provider in order to change rules, policies, practices, or services so that a person with a disability will have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home or common space. A person with a disability must notify the housing provider if they need a reasonable accommodation, and the housing provider must grant the request if it is reasonable. There must be a connection between the disability and the need for the accommodation. Lastly, the landlord is responsible for the cost of the accommodation.
A woman with a visual impairment has a trained guide dog. She is applying to an apartment building with a no-pets policy. The building manager must allow her to keep the guide dog as a reasonable accommodation.
A man with a heart problem can only walk short distances. Although the apartment building has parking on a first come, first served basis, the man is allowed to have a reserved space closest to his unit.
A reasonable modification is a request to physically modify your housing space or a common area space that all tenants share. The person making the request generally must pay the cost of the modifications unless the housing is federally subsidized.
A tenant that uses a wheelchair requires a ramp to access the entrance of the dwelling. The property management must allow the tenant to make the modifications, at the tenant’s expense.
An elderly man living in an apartment building has a physical impairment due to aging and requests that grab bars be installed in his bathroom in order to stabilize himself. His landlord must allow the installation, again at the tenant’s expense.
The Fair Housing Act requires multi-family housing built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991 to have certain accessibility features. Some housing may be subject to the accessibility requirements of other laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and local building codes. If you have questions about accessibility, please email us at [email protected].
It is illegal for housing providers to discriminate against you based on your familial status, including denying you housing or a mortgage.
Familial status means having children under age 18 in the household. This can include:
- Established families with children;
- Persons planning on having a family;
- Pregnant women;
- Traditional and non-traditional families, such as single-parent families or two same-sex parents;
- Persons in the process of securing legal custody of children through foster care, adoption, or divorce; and
- Unique or unexpected circumstances that change the composition of the family (such as death in family, etc.).
Familial status discrimination can look like:
- Refusing to rent, sell, or negotiate with a family because the family has one or more children under 18 years of age (“The building is for quiet professionals”);
- Forcing families into housing units that are larger than necessary (“Each child must have their own bedroom”);
- Making certain floors or buildings for families with children or encouraging families with children to reside in particular areas of the building or complex (“Families with kids must rent first floor apartments”);
- Charging additional rent, security deposit, or fees because a household has children under 18 years of age;
- Creating and enforcing rules to restrict children in the building or complex (“Person’s under 18 years of age must be in their home by sunset”); or
- Evicting families from an apartment or mobile home park because it wants to change to a senior-only apartment or mobile home park.
Unlike other areas of discrimination, there are some exceptions to familial status anti-discrimination protections:
- There is only one type of housing that may lawfully exclude (not allow) children. Some housing is only for people who are 62 years old or older — Which means that every person who lives in this type of housing must be at least 62 years old or older.
- Some housing is set aside for people who are aged 55 or older. This housing requires a certain amount of the residents to be at least 55 years old. As long as that amount is met, children and people younger than 55 can live in this kind of housing. They can choose to exclude children under 18 altogether and only allow persons 55 and older to rent or buy.
It is illegal for housing providers to discriminate against you based on your sex/gender. This can include refusing to rent or sell to someone, or treating someone differently, because of their gender.
Sex discrimination laws can also protect:
- Survivors of domestic violence;
- Persons who are experiencing or have experienced Sexual Harassment in their housing; or
- The LGBTQ+ Community.
Protections for persons who experienced or are currently experiencing sexual harassment.
No one should have to choose between housing and sexual harassment. As a tenant, you have the right to be free from sexual harassment in your housing.
There are generally two types of sexual harassment: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment. Often victims of sexual harassment suffer both.
(1) Quid Pro Quo, or “This for That,” harassment is when a housing provider asks for sex or sexual favors to avoid eviction or in exchange for free rent, repairs, excused late payments or fees, etc.
(2) A Hostile Environment is when a housing provider creates a threatening or uncomfortable environment because of unwanted sexual behavior.
The following are examples of sexual harassment in housing:
My landlord made a lot of comments about having sex with me. I ignored him. When I fell behind on rent, he said there was another way I could pay. I said no and he evicted me.
The housing authority inspector wouldn’t approve the apartment I wanted to rent with my voucher unless I performed a sexual act. I agreed in order to get my family off the street.
The maintenance person won’t fix anything in my apartment unless I have sex with them. I don’t know what I’m going to do about the broken heater when it gets even colder.
I went to look at a home to rent and the owner told me he would lower the rent if I had sex with him.
I wanted to buy a home. When I went to look at it, the loan officer grabbed my breasts. I said no and left immediately. I never heard about the home or the loan again.
The security guard in my apartment building has been talking about my body and sending me naked pictures. I asked him to stop. I came home one day and found him naked in my bed.
The owner of the home I rent makes comments about my body, clothes, and the sexual acts they want me to perform on them.
If you are experiencing sexual harassment in your housing, keep notes of when incidents happen that include the time and dates of when it happened and what was said to you by the harasser. Please contact us for legal assistance with that information at CLS (800-405-1417).
If you are a survivor of domestic violence, you have the right to live in your home safely or obtain housing without a housing provider inquiring more about the domestic violence or denying you/evicting you from housing because of what occurred. Depending on your situation, you may be protected under the sex discrimination laws of the Fair Housing Act.
If you live in HUD-assisted housing such as public housing, project based section 8 housing, Section 202 and 811 supportive housing for the elderly and people with disabilities, and are experiencing domestic violence, you have options that will help you to keep your housing or allow you to move for safety reasons. (For more information on what housing is covered, go to https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/housing/mfh/violence_against_women_act).
The law that protects you in your HUD-funded housing as a survivor of domestic violence is called the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA). Visit our web page about Violence Protection for more details about Domestic Violence rights.
Although the Fair Housing Act does not expressly protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, HUD has used sex discrimination to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community from such discrimination. HUD’s Equal Access rule may also protect LGBTQ+ citizens if their housing provider receives HUD funding or has a HUD-insured loan.
Florida State law does not protect Floridians from discrimination against their LGBTQ+ status, but certain cities and counties do specifically provide protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in their codes. Contact your local housing committee to learn about your rights. You can find a list of local agencies here: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/partners/FHAP/agencies#FL
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?
Create a journal of your housing discrimination experience. Write down any conversations or interactions you have had (whether they happened in the past or are ongoing) to create a timeline of your experience. Remember, you have 1 year from the alleged act of discrimination to file an administrative complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additionally, you have 2 years to file a complaint in federal court from the last act of discrimination.
Keep notes of who you spoke to, when you spoke to them, what was said, and any witnesses who were present. Write down a list of all the people who were involved, such as the property management company, leasing agents, landlords, lenders, etc.
Gather any documents you received related to your housing (such as denial letters if you had applied to an apartment and got rejected), any notices you received from the housing providers, leases, any documents you had sent your housing providers, applications you might have filled out, etc.
In certain situations, photographs or screenshots may provide evidence of discrimination. Save copies of any pictures that you take to help prove your case. Also keep copies of any written statements provided by witnesses.
Save any emails, telephone voicemails, written letters, or any other correspondence that relates to your experience.
Community Legal Services can assist you with filing a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development or you may file the complaint yourself.
Depending on the type of complaint, HUD may refer your case to an appropriate local agency for investigation, because they have certified that these agencies meet the same standards for procedure, investigations, and remedies that HUD does.
There are circumstances in which you may want to contact HUD directly, such as if you are having difficulty finding an appropriate local housing agency or the housing agency you contacted is being unresponsive. HUD can also take action on your behalf if any of the following occur:
- It has been more than 30 days since you filed your complaint and your certified local agency has not started proceedings;
- Your certified local agency is not carrying out the proceedings in a prompt manner; and
- HUD decides that your local agency no longer meets the requirements for HUD certification.
HUD also investigates complaints against discrimination in HUD programs or discrimination by housing providers who receive HUD funding or have HUD-insured loans.
HUD complaints can be filed by mail, submitting online forms, through email, or over the phone. Anyone can file a complaint, and additional help is offered for those with a disability and non-English speakers.
To file a complaint or learn more about the process, go to HUD’s File a Complaint page here: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaint
While the process described below applies to HUD investigations, you can reasonably expect a somewhat similar procedure from your HUD-certified local agency.
HUD will assign investigators to your case who will ask you for information about your claim of discrimination. They will want to know the timeline of events, the relevant locations, anyone involved, the witnesses present or anyone else who might have information about your complaint, and any documentation that you have to support your case.
HUD may gather their own evidence in addition to what you provide them with. They may conduct interviews or property inspections, collect additional documentation, or use other methods throughout their investigation.
The person or organization you filed the complaint against will be notified and have an opportunity to respond.
HUD will send you a written report notifying you of its findings once the investigation is over. This is called a “Letter of Findings.” If you, or the party you filed the complaint against, disagree with the information presented in the Letter of Findings you have 30 days to request a review. HUD will review their facts and determination, and will decide whether to change it or leave it as is.
Once the investigation is complete, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will notify you of one of two possible outcomes:
- Determination of Reasonable Cause and Charge of Discrimination:
This will be issued if HUD’s investigation led them to conclude that there was a reasonable cause to believe that discrimination took place. You and the party you filed against have 20 days from this notification to decide whether your case is heard before a Federal District Court judge or a HUD Administrative Law Judge.
- Determination of No Reasonable Cause and Dismissal:
This will be issued if HUD’s investigation did not find sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that discrimination occurred. While there is no formal process written into the Fair Housing Act to appeal this decision, HUD allows you to request a reconsideration by writing to: Director, FHEO Office of Enforcement, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 451 7th Street, SW, Room 5226, Washington, DC 20410-2000.
If a Determination of Reasonable Cause and a Charge of Discrimination has been issued, either you or the party you filed against can choose to have your case heard by a Federal Distric Court judge. This choice must be made within 20 days of the date you received notice of the determination.
If elected, HUD will refer your case to the U.S. Department of Justice, who will file a civil suit on your behalf in the district where the discrimination took place. You or the party you filed against can also choose to have a jury trial. You can choose to be represented by the Department of Justice’s appointed legal counsel or your own attorney.
If the court finds in your favor, the person you filed against could be ordered to compensate you for damages (expenses, emotional distress, and punitive damages), pay your attorney fees, or make housing available to you. In addition to financial consequences, the offending party could become subject to a court order not to discriminate.
If a Determination of Reasonable Cause and a Charge of Discrimination has been issued, and neither you nor the party you filed against chose to have a federal civil trial within 20 days of receiving notice of the determination, your case will be heard by a HUD Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
You can choose to be represented by the HUD’s appointed legal council or your own attorney.
If the ALJ rules that a violation of the Fair Housing Act took place, he may order the person you filed against to compensate you for damages (expenses, emotional distress), pay your attorney fees, pay a civil penalty, or make housing available to you. In addition to financial consequences, the offending party could become subject to a court order not to discriminate.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION?
We are always looking for “mystery shoppers” who can volunteer to help keep discrimination out of our housing market.
Read a summary of the Federal Fair Housing Act on the Department of Justice website: https://www.justice.gov/crt/fair-housing-act-1
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a simpler breakdown of the Federal Fair Housing Act and its protections: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/fair_housing_act_overview