Housing Providers and Fair Housing Laws
As a housing provider, you have an obligation to uphold fair housing laws. Those looking to buy or rent from you have many anti-discrimination rights provided for them by both the Federal Fair Housing Act and Florida’s Fair Housing Act.
It is just as important that you know these specific federal, state, and local protections as it is for buyers and renters. Not only could knowing the government’s guidelines of what you are, and are not, allowed to do help you avoid an expensive lawsuit, but in some cases discrimination is simply caused by a lack of awareness about what laws are in place.
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
You have many rights and capabilities as a housing provider under federal and state law, but you must always conduct your business practices free of discrimination.
Discrimination, as defined by the Fair Housing Act, is unequal or different treatment because of race, national origin, color, religion, sex/gender, disability, or familial status.
As a housing provider you may not do any of the following because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin:
- Refuse to sell or rent housing;
- Refuse to negotiate for housing;
- Say housing is unavailable when it is available;
- Charge more for the same housing or service;
- Set different terms, conditions or privileges for housing sales, rental, lending, or insurance transactions;
- Refuse to make reasonable accommodations or modifications to allow a disabled person to use a dwelling;
- Advertise in a way that shows any limitation or preference for one protected class over another;
- Steer or direct prospective renters or buyers to certain neighborhoods;
- Threaten or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of a fair housing right; or
- Fail to design or construct housing in an accessible manner.
If someone makes a housing discrimination complaint (to you, another housing provider, or the government) or participates in a housing discrimination investigation in any way, it is illegal for you to take any retaliatory action.
You may not use your status as a housing provider to impose punishments for their involvement, nor may you harass them in any way.
John, who is an Asian man, meets with a real estate broker to discuss purchasing a house for his family. When John names the neighborhood that he is interested in, the broker asks John if he is sure that his family will feel comfortable there. The broker tells John that she has a wonderful listing in another neighborhood where there are more “people like them.” When the broker takes John to see the house, John notices that the residents of the neighborhood appear to be mostly Asian. John files a complaint with HUD because steering someone to a certain neighborhood because of his race is a form of race discrimination.
Jane has a Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8), but one month she falls behind on her portion of the rent. When Jane asks her landlord if he will give her a few more days, her landlord says yes but only if she will go out with him. Feeling she has no choice, Jane says yes. Over the next few days, Jane’s landlord sends her sexually explicit text messages even though Jane tells him to stop. Jane’s landlord tells her that if she does not go out with him again, he is going to evict her and she will lose her voucher. Jane files a complaint with HUD because sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.
John, a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair, views a condominium he is hoping to purchase in a new multistory building. When John arrives, he finds there are no accessible parking spaces in the building’s parking lot. When John tries to enter the unit, his wheelchair can barely fit through the door and he bangs his arms on the way in. Inside the unit, the thermostat and light switches are all too high for him to reach. The building has a fitness room, but he cannot look at it because the only way to get to the fitness room is to go up steps. John files a complaint with HUD because failing to comply with accessibility requirements is a form of disability discrimination.
Jane has a developmental disability that affects her capacity to manage her own finances. Jane tells her building manager that her mother will be paying her rent for this reason and asks if all notices relating to her rent can be sent to her mother. The building manager tells Jane that the management company has a policy of only sending notices to residents, no exceptions. Several months later, Jane receives an eviction notice because her mother had not known that Jane’s rent had been increased. Jane files a complaint with HUD because denying a reasonable accommodation is a form of disability discrimination.
John has three teenage children. John’s building has a patio with picnic tables, and one day John’s children decide to have lunch there with some of their friends. The next day, John receives a notice from the homeowner’s association informing him that the building rules say that the patio is for adult-use only and that he needs to make sure his children do not violate the building rules. John files a complaint with HUD because building rules that discriminate against children are a form of familial status discrimination.
Jane and John are filling out an application for a mortgage at their local bank. Their loan officer notices that Jane is visibly pregnant and asks whether she will be taking maternity leave. When Jane says yes, the loan officer informs the couple that they either have to apply without Jane’s income or wait until she returns from leave. “I’m sorry,” the loan officer says, “but I’ve seen too many women change their mind about going back to work.” Jane and John file a complaint with HUD because the bank’s policy discriminates based on sex and familial status.
John recently moved to the United States from Mexico. One day, John sees that there is a new tenant in the apartment next to his, so he welcomes her to the building. John’s neighbor comments on how nice everyone in the building seems, especially the building manager who offered to waive her security deposit because she seems like a good person. John is surprised because the building manager was short-tempered with him and said that John’s accent made him hard to understand. John later asks around and finds out that the building manager has waived fees and deposits for other tenants he likes, but not for him or other persons from Mexico. John files a complaint with HUD because providing different terms and conditions to tenants because of national origin is illegal discrimination.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?
It may be helpful to see the Fair Housing Act and its protections from the viewpoint of the renters and buyers.
Advertising your rental or sale has to be done in compliance with the Fair Housing Act, regardless of how big or small the property is that you are offering, how many units you have to rent, and whether your advertisement is in print or online.
Both the federal and state Fair Housing Acts state that it is unlawful to “make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published, any notice, statement, or advertisement with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, handicap, familial status, or religion or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”
HUD’s stance on what does and does not constitute discriminatory advertisements has been outlined in the Memorandum on Guidance Regarding Advertisements Under § 804(c) of the Fair Housing Act and the HUD Fair Housing Act Advertising Guidelines (formerly part of the Code of Federal Regulation, 24 C.F.R. part 109).
While some prohibited language is obvious, such as racial slurs or terms known to be considered offensive, both the memo and the advertising guidelines provide additional context. They should be read in full, but below are some examples of language that could negatively affect you during a HUD discrimination claim investigation:
- Race, color, or national origin: Any language that shows a direct racial preference will violate the Fair Housing Act. Phrases such as “white family home,” “no Irish,” etc. are prohibited. Phrases which describe a neighborhood or a property’s neighbors in a similar way are also prohibited. Racial preference must also be avoided
- Religion: Religious words and symbols may be used in the proper context, but they may not be used to show a preference or discriminate. Because of this, phrases like “Christian home” or “no Jews” would violate the act. Description of services or amenities such as “kosher meals available” or “apartment complex with chapel” are not prohibited. If the property’s name or structure seems to have a bias toward a certain religion, such as buildings with a large, visible cross or names like “Roselawn Catholic Home,” the property can comply with the Fair Housing Act by including a disclaimer (such as the statement “This Home does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, handicap or familial status”).
- Sex: Advertisements of separate living spaces (not shared) cannot show preference toward a specific gender, but commonly used descriptive housing terms that reference gender are acceptable, such as “mother-in-law suite” or “bachelor apartment.”
- Disability: You may not explicitly exclude people with disabilities in your advertisement, but you are able to describe features of the property. You could not say “no wheelchairs,” but you could mention “great jogging trails” or “wheelchair ramp.”
- Family status: Unless your property is an exception (such as communities for those 65-years-old and up), you may not state a preference regarding the number of children allowed or their ages. You may still use descriptive terms for the layout and neighborhood such as “two bedroom,” “no bicycles allowed,” or “quiet streets.”
You should also avoid using images that seem preferential to a certain race, religion, or gender in advertising campaigns, such as only hiring white models in an area with many different racial demographics.
If a large portion of your income depends upon renting or selling property, it may be a good idea to enroll in a Fair Housing compliance course. Professional landlords or realtors may benefit from the training and certification they receive from having passed a HUD-sponsored or HUD-approved course.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION?
We may possess personal biases without realizing or acknowledging them, and these biases can affect our business practices.
- Am I imagining or hoping for a certain demographic of tenant or buyer?
- Would it bother me if a tenant or buyer did not speak my language?
- Do I have preconceived notions about what this neighborhood should “look like”?
- Do I expect certain races, religions, or family dynamics to be less responsible or trustworthy?
- Am I hoping to sell or rent to someone who reminds me of myself?
- Am I willing to make adjustments and accommodations for a disabled tenant?
- Are my negotiations and interactions the exact same regardless of the person’s gender?
- Have I carefully examined my advertisements and behavior to remove any biases?
Here are some examples of housing discrimination taken directly from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Discrimination Isn’t Always Obvious – Example #1:
John, who is a Black man, speaks to a prospective landlord on the phone about leasing an apartment. On the phone, the landlord seems eager to rent to John, but when John meets with the landlord in person to fill out an application, the landlord’s attitude is entirely different. A few days later, John receives a letter saying that his application was denied because of a negative reference from his current landlord. John is surprised because he never had problems with his landlord, and his landlord swears she was never contacted for a reference. John suspects that the real reason he was denied the apartment was because he is Black, so John files a complaint with HUD. HUD investigates and it turns out John is right — the landlord’s files show a pattern of discrimination because of race and color
Discrimination Isn’t Always Obvious – Example #2:
Jane is a Muslim woman who wears a hijab. Jane walks into the leasing office for a large apartment building because she saw a sign in the building’s window advertising several available units. Jane introduces herself to the leasing officer, who immediately says there are no units available. Jane asks to be put on the waiting list, but she never receives a call. Jane files a complaint with HUD because she suspects that the leasing officer does not want to rent to her because she is Muslim. HUD investigates and it turns out Jane is right — other employees of the building give HUD information that substantiates Jane’s claim of religious discrimination.