Am I a Victim of Housing Discrimination?

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Am I a Victim of Housing Discrimination?

Lisa Bernstein · Aug 7, 2009

When apartment hunting, an unusual experience may cause you to feel that you’ve become a victim of housing discrimination. The landlord’s behavior may make you believe that you’re being treated differently or unfairly compared to other prospective tenants. But, how do you know if this treatment is the result of discrimination or something else?

All U.S. residents, including you, have the right to rent an apartment in any neighborhood, assuming that they can afford it. Any attempt to block your right to fair housing is considered an act of housing discrimination.

A federal law called the Fair Housing Act, also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, grants the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) the power to investigate and take legal action to combat housing discrimination. HUD is the federal agency which enforces U.S. fair housing laws. It is also responsible for national policy and programs that address housing needs.

What Qualifies as Housing Discrimination?

Housing discrimination can be obvious or subtle. Obvious discrimination is when the landlord applies unfair practices to prevent you from living where you want to live based on your race, whether you have children, or because you are disabled. Subtle discrimination occurs when the landlord tells you, in a friendly way, that the rental is no longer available, and then rents it later to someone of a different race. You may never even know that this has happened.

The Fair Housing Act identifies certain groups, known as “protected classes,” who deserve special protection against housing discrimination. Your landlord cannot discriminate against you if you fall into any of these groups. It is also illegal for them to discriminate against you for having children under 18 or for being pregnant. The Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibit landlords from selecting tenants on the basis of a group characteristic including:

  • race
  • sex
  • religion
  • ethnic background
  • national origin
  • familial status, children under the age of 18 or being pregnant (excluding certain designated senior housing)
  • a physical or mental disability

Some state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on your marital status, age, or sexual orientation, as well.

The following are examples of prohibited housing practices:

  • Misrepresenting whether the rental is available
  • Setting more restrictive standards for some tenants (such as higher income)
  • Intentional delays or stalling prospective tenants until a more desirable applicant arrives
  • Unfair differences in rents, deposits or other rental terms, including quoting higher costs for families, people of color or the mentally ill to discourage them from applying

What is not Considered Housing Discrimination?

Landlords have the right to select tenants using criteria based on valid business practices. They can require you to earn a minimum amount of income, have a good credit rating, or have positive references from previous landlords. They can also refuse to rent to you if you have a history of nonpayment of rent or of damaging apartments. As long as these standards are applied equally to all tenants, it is not considered to be housing discrimination.

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Lisa Bernstein: As a long-time apartment dweller and seasoned condominium trustee, I have dealt with numerous landlord-tenant, property management, and day-to-day apartment complex issues. My extensive, direct experience has led to invaluable insights into apartment life from both the tenant and management perspectives.

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