Fair Housing legislation was created in 1968. It protects people from being discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in the sale or rental of housing. Since its inception, many protected classes have been added including age, pregnancy status, citizenship, familial status, disability status, veteran status, genetic information, and most recently, sexual orientation.
Regularly, the enforcement agency of Fair Housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) receives and investigates reports of discriminatory housing practices across the country. Sometimes, these investigations result in civil penalties for landlords, mortgage brokers, realtors, even housing authorities or municipalities.
Those in protected classes are often not shown vacancies, face higher interest rates when applying for a mortgage, or otherwise are treated differently when trying to secure safe housing. One way fair housing agencies try to determine if there is discrimination is to hire and pay “testers” who request housing information in pairs – for instance one person who is white and one person who is black apply for an apartment on the same day. If they receive different information, the agency investigates this as potentially discriminatory.
Housing professionals regularly see behavior that is problematic. Applicants often want to know if they will “fit in” to a property and they ask questions like, “Will there be other Hispanics?” or “Will I be the only Jewish person there?” Housing professionals have learned to be vague or outright state they cannot answer those kinds of questions.
HUD also promotes affirmatively furthering fair housing by requiring that housing agencies reach out to “those groups least likely to apply” based on the demographics of the area versus that development.
Despite these laws, there are greater concentrations of poverty in many minority neighborhoods of major cities. To address this disparity, HUD recently extended the reach of Fair Housing. Previously, a policy or process had to have discriminatory intent. Now, HUD wants housing providers, including cities and towns, to review the “disparate impact” of their policies. That is, determine in advance if a policy disproportionately affects people in a protected class and, if so, see if there is a way to remedy that impact.
According to HUD, the largest category of complaints received each year is for discrimination based on disability. People who have a disability (physical or mental), who have a history of a disability, or who are regarded as having a disability, are all protected by the law.
The law also protects the rights of people with disabilities who may ask for a reasonable accommodation, or a change in part of the building (like a wheelchair ramp) or a policy (like a no pets policy) so that people with disabilities can have the same access as people without.
Another way a landlord can discriminate against tenants is to ignore harassing behavior. Tenants typically have a right to “peaceful enjoyment” of their apartment and common areas, which means that they can expect to be treated respectfully by other tenants. Some tenants can be very dismissive of others and say things like, “You are too disabled to live here” or “You belong in a nursing home.”
Housing discrimination hurts everyone. This year alone, HUD made available an additional $37 million for enforcement of fair housing laws. These taxpayer dollars wouldn’t need to be spent if people were treated fairly in housing situations.