Fair Housing or Discrimination?
Why are there tens of thousands of 'discrimination in housing' claims each year? There are legitimate ways to say no to a prospective tenant...and there are many ways not to. Our words may seem justified, culturally appropriate, and even cleverly conceived - yet may be 'against the law'. Pleading ignorance of the law won't protect you from the consequences - fines, penalties, and even the loss of license. The fact that you 'got away with it' in the past doesn't mean you will tomorrow. Whether you are a landlord, property manager, or an employee of a property management company - you need to know the laws and to take them seriously.
All federal, state and local fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on Federal law, yet various states and cities have also enacted additional prohibitions. These additional laws may include discrimination based on source of income, age, sexual orientation, military and/or marital status.. Be sure to know, and stay up-to-date on, all the laws appropriate to your state and city. Remember, these laws apply 24/7/365, not merely when you are in direct conversation with a potential tenant. An overheard conversation in which you speak in a discriminatory manner about an applicant can land you in court.
So, what do the laws require regarding fair housing and discrimination?
The Federal Law The Federal Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination and/or intimidation of people based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. In 1988 an amendment was added to the law prohibiting discrimination based on familial status and disability.
Practically speaking, what does this mean?
It means that you cannot refuse to rent or sell housing, negotiate for housing, deny or make housing unavailable, set different terms for the sale/rental, provide different housing services or facilities, falsely deny the availability of, intimidate or obstruct, and/or deny access to a facility or service based on the above protected categories. Also included, yet often neglected, is discrimination in advertising.
Here are several important links for more information:
State Laws - Texas
County/City Laws - Dallas, TX
A few examples of Discrimination in Housing
- Wording - "sign in front of building that says 'no children', or 'Christian couples preferred' or 'great for single professionals'
- Pictures - advertising only uses pictures of white people indicating exclusivity
- Pets - prohibiting service animals for the disabled in a facility with a no pet policy or charging a security deposit for a companion dog
- Disabilities - not only asking for proof of disability (legal), but the nature of the disability (illegal)
- Modifications - refusing to permit reasonable modifications of facility for the disabled
- Children - suggesting that a family rent only a first floor apartment if they have children
- Security Deposit - increasing the deposit because the couple will be raising minor children
- False Information - telling an less-than-preferable applicant that a unit is not available when it really is available
- Social Security Number - only requiring a SSN from folks of one particular ethnic group
- Location - making it clear that the property is near your preferred church or not near any gay bars
When is it legitimate to deny a tenant's application without running afoul of the law?
- The applicant lied or did not fully complete their application
- The applicant's income is insufficient to qualify for the stated rent
- The applicant's employment and/or salary could not be verified
- The applicant's credit report revealed previous evictions based on nonpayment of rent
- The applicant's previous landlord(s) gave an adverse report
- The applicant's criminal background check revealed a history of fraud or aggressive behavior
General Recommendations to Avoid Discrimination
- When you advertise your property, present only its attributes. Never even hint at a preferred 'type' of tenant.
- When screening tenants make sure that your criteria are specific, legal, and clearly written.
- When dealing with tenants from the first contact until their lease ends, be consistent with everyone.
- Whether landlord or property manager, keep yourself and any employees current on all applicable laws.