Fair Housing Basics
Not all discrimination is illegal. For example, a housing provider can reject someone's application because of their rental history or their criminal background. However, when someone is treated differently because of:
- Familial Status (having kids or being pregnant)
- Public Assistance (MFIP, EA, GA, SSI, etc.)
- Sexual Orientation
- Marital Status (being married, single or divorced)
- National Origin
- Creed (belief or faith)
- Age (St. Paul only)
It is illegal!
- Application Denials
- Denying someone because they receive MFIP or because they are paying their deposit with Emergency Assistance.
- Rejecting an applicant because he or she has a disability, even though the disability would not keep him or her from following the lease.
- Saying "no kids," but it is not a seniors-only building or another exempted property.
- A consumer's mortgage application is never processed because of his religion.
- Different Treatment
- The caretaker makes repairs for white tenants before tenants of color.
- The manager punishes lease violations more strictly if they are caused by children.
- Denying a request to make a simple change in the rules to let a person with a disability live there successfully, like allowing a companion animal.
- A real estate agent who only shows condos in certain neighborhoods based on the buyer's ethnicity when there are other units available.
- The caretaker pressures a tenant to date him, and lets himself into her apartment.
- An onsite security guard treats certain visitors differently, because they are American Indian.
- Neighbors try to force a homeowner out of the neighborhood with racial insults or threats.
All of the following must comply with federal, state and local fair housing laws:
- Property Managers
- Portfolio Managers
- Maintenance Crews and Contractors
- Housing Industry Trade Associations
- Property Owners and Sellers
- Sales Agents and Brokerage Offices
- Listing Services
- Builders and Developers
- Condo and Homeowner Associations
- Mortgage Lenders and Appraisers
- Home Insurance Companies
- Long Term Care Facilities
- Governmental Jurisdictions
- Employees of housing providers
- Basically Everyone!
This list is not all-inclusive; it simply demonstrates that everyone involved with selling or renting real estate needs to know about and comply with fair housing laws.
Very, very few homes are exempt from all fair housing laws. Owners and managers of some owner-occupied or religious-affiliated housing are not barred from discriminating against some classes of people. But even those owners cannot discriminate because of race and there are many other limitations on exemptions.
Housing discrimination does not need to be intentional to be illegal. If the effect of your words, advertisements or actions has a discriminatory effect based on a protected class, they may be illegal. Similarly, if the effect of a rule, practice or procedure of yours disproportionately impacts one or more protected classes, it is illegal.
Following a few basic steps will help you steer clear of unwarranted fair housing complaints.
Keep complete and accurate records.
Even landlords committed to fair housing can find themselves facing a fair housing complaint. Accurate records are the best defense against any allegations of unfair housing practices.
Apply rules consistently to all tenants
It may be difficult to defend against discrimination complaints if the manager or landlord has, in fact, applied rules more stringently to some tenants than others.
Distinguish between senior living and familial status discrimination
Housing for seniors is still allowed, but must adhere to the guidelines imposed by the Fair Housing Act. It is illegal to exclude children as tenants unless the housing is specifically marketed as housing for older persons and meets occupancy guidelines as outlined by HUD regulations. Just changing your marketing to "seniors only" will not be enough to avoid liability.
Accommodate tenants with disabilities
It is a violation of fair housing law to:
- Refuse to rent because of a disability
- Refuse reasonable structural modifications to improve access
- Refuse to make reasonable policy exceptions
Watch for inadvertent violation of familial status laws
Safety rules must be carefully developed to avoid conflict with laws prohibiting discrimination against families with children. A manager or landlord may unknowingly violate the law while attempting to implement safety rules. See this video for more information.
Convey your Fair Housing commitment to managers, rental agents and tenants
Remind your managers and tenants of your commitment to fair housing. Display fair housing posters such as THIS ONE in prominent locations. Periodically distribute a statement of your commitment to fair housing to your tenants in community newsletters and bulletins.
Train your managers
Laws change. Congress passes new laws and amendments. Court decisions add new meaning to existing laws. A manager or leasing agent may inadvertently break the law by not realizing the law had changed. Have your rental or real estate staff attend a training class or seminar in fair housing at least once per year.
Communicate with your tenants
"Effective communication skills" may be an overused phrase these days, but it is invaluable in landlord/tenant relations. Clearly convey, and patiently explain to your tenants any decisions or actions you take that may have a negative impact on their housing situation.
Remember: Retaliation is illegal!
Never allow the filing of a fair housing complaint to influence your decision to take any action against a tenant.
The best thing you can do is be aware. If you suspect that one of your tenants or a homeowner you know has experienced fair housing discrimination, advise them to contact a local fair housing agency.
In Minnesota, the government agencies are:
- Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity - Enforcement of the Federal Fair Housing Act
- Minnesota Department of Human Rights - Enforcement of the Minnesota Human Rights Act
- Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights - Enforcement of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Ordinance
- Saint Paul Department of Human Rights - Enforcement of Federal Fair Housing Act and the St. Paul Human Rights Ordinance
- City of Duluth Human Rights Office - Enforcement of local and federal fair housing laws