What Is Housing Discrimination?
A: Housing discrimination is treating people differently than others are treated under the same or similar circumstances.
This is illegal if it is done because of one's protected class status, or because of the protected class of those s/he associates with.
Housing discrimination also includes refusal to make reasonable accommodations or modifications for people with disabilities, or failure to build certain multi-family housing so that it is accessible to people with disabilities.
What is a "protected class"?
A: The term "protected class" refers to a group of people whom the law protects against illegal discrimination. A protected class is named for the characteristic that these people share, such as race or religion.
What are the protected classes under federal law?
A: The Fair Housing Act, which is the federal law governing housing discrimination, includes seven protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status.
Are there additional protected classes in Minnesota?
A: Yes. In addition to the seven protected classes covered by the federal law, the Minnesota Human Rights Act considers sexual orientation, marital status, status with regard to public assistance and creed to be protected classes.
What does "familial status" cover?
A: "Familial status" protects families with children (under 18) from housing discrimination. This protection is broad, and also covers women who are pregnant and people who are in the process of adopting or fostering a child.
What is a disability under the law?
A: A disability is defined as any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities such as walking, seeing, hearing, thinking, self-care, or a chronic condition (such as mental illness, AIDS, blindness, hearing impairment, mental retardation, mobility impairment, etc.). In addition, those who have a record of an impairment or are regarded as having an impairment, are also covered. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts may also be considered to have a disability and covered by the law.
Is sexual harassment covered by fair housing law?
A: Yes. Courts have held that the law's ban on housing discrimination based on sex includes sexual harassment.
Courts have recognized two types of violations of the law based on sexual harassment. One is called "quid pro quo" - that's when a housing provider, janitor, manager, caretaker, etc, offers or requires you to exchange sexual acts or favors for rent.
The second type of sexual harassment is a hostile environment. This is when the housing provider's (or employees') sexual comments, requests for dates, unauthorized entrances into your apartment or other behavior of a sexual nature is so severe or pervasive that it changes the nature of your tenancy.
For more information on sexual harassment in housing, including who is liable, see our fact sheet here.
Who must obey the law?
A: Everyone, including
- Real estate operators, brokers and agents
- Savings & loan associations, mortgage lenders, banks, or other financial institutions
- Apartment managers
- Rental agents
- Builders, contractors and developers
- Owners of building lots
- Advertising media
- Homeowners advertising and selling their own home
- Caretakers and janitors
- Condo and townhome owners associations
- Government Agencies
What kind of housing is covered?
A: Covered housing includes real property (home, apartments, lots, etc.) rented or sold; boarding houses; public housing; mobile home parks; condominiums; homeless shelters and sober housing.
In some limited circumstances, housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members may be excluded from complying.
I thought some housing was not covered. Is that true?
A: The exclusions are very complicated and different under federal and local laws. Assume that discrimination is illegal until you consult an expert.
I thought only federal housing was covered by federal law.
A: Since 1863 all property and contracts have been covered by laws banning race discrimination. In 1968 and 1988, more protected classes were added with special enforcement provisions.
What are some examples of housing discrimination?
A: The following are examples of acts or practices are illegal if based on someone's protected class:
Denying or refusing to rent or sell housing
- Refusing to negotiate for housing
- Providing false information about availability of housing for inspection, sale, or rental
- Persuading owners to sell or rent in order to make a profit ("blockbusting")
- Denying anyone access to (or membership in) a facility, community (such as a homeowners association or manufactured home park), or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to housing
- Having different terms, conditions, rules or privileges based on protected class
- Advertising a discriminatory preference or limitation
- Harassing, coercing or intimidating people from enjoying or exercising their rights under fair housing laws
- Imposing different terms or conditions for purchasing or renting; constructing, improving, repairing, insuring, appraising, or maintaining a home; or for loans secured by housing
- Denying use of or participation in real estate services, e.g., brokers' organizations, multiple listing services, etc.
- Neighbor-on-neighbor harassment
- Retaliation for bringing a complaint about discrimination
Is the Fair Housing Act the same thing as the Americans with Disabilities Act?
A: No. While the two laws may offer the same protections in certain areas, they are not the same. The Fair Housing Act has seven protected classes, whereas the ADA protects only persons with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act extends to private landlords; the ADA's laws govern employers, those receiving federal funds, and public accommodations such as restaurants and movie theaters. (*Public accommodations within apartment complexes, such as rental offices, are covered by both the ADA and the FHA.)
In particular, the protection afforded to people with disabilities who need support animals is different under both laws. You can read more about this topic here.
What is a reasonable accommodation?
Besides not discriminating, housing providers may be required to make exceptions to rules, policies, and practices for people with disabilities in order for them to be able to gain full use and enjoyment of their housing. This comes in the form of a "reasonable accommodation" or a "reasonable modification" request.
The Fair Housing Act requires that housing providers must "make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling."
One example of a common reasonable accommodation is the waiver of a "no pets" policy for an individual with a disability who requires an animal because of his / her disability. There are narrow and specific reasons that a request for reasonable accommodation may be denied. See our section on Disability Rights for more information.
Do I have to pay for a reasonable accommodation?
You may be required to grant a reasonable accommodation even if it costs you some money. However, if the accommodation would cause an undue financial burden, it may not be "reasonable" under the law. What is or is not an "undue financial burden" is fact specific to each housing provider. You can learn more about reasonable accommodations here.
What is a reasonable modification?
A: The Fair Housing Act also requires that housing providers allow a person with a disability to make reasonable modifications to the physical structure of the unit or the common areas, when such a modification may be necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.
A common example of a reasonable modification would be the installation of a ramp for an individual in a wheel chair to access the entrance to their unit. There are very narrow and specific reasons that a request for reasonable modification may be denied. See our section on Disability Rights for more information on reasonable modifications.
Do I have to pay for a reasonable modification?
A: Generally, the tenant is responsible for paying for the modification. However, if a housing provider receives federal funds, they will be responsible for the cost of any reasonable modification. You can find out more information about reasonable modifications HERE.
What are requirements for housing to be accessible?
A: The Fair Housing Act requires all "covered multifamily dwellings" designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991 to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. Covered multifamily dwellings are all dwelling units in buildings containing four or more units with one or more elevators, and all ground floor units in buildings containing four or more units, without an elevator.
What are the law's design and construction requirements?
A: The Fair Housing Act lists seven basic standards that must be met to comply with the access requirements of the Act. Those requirements are:
Requirement 1: An accessible building entrance on an accessible route.
Requirement 2: Accessible common and public use areas.
Requirement 3: Usable doors (usable by a person in a wheelchair).
Requirement 4: Accessible route into and through the dwelling unit.
Requirement 5: Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations.
Requirement 6: Reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars.
Requirement 7: Usable kitchens and bathrooms.
For more information about the Act's D&C requirements, visit the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Fair Housing Accessibility First Page here.
If a tenant has children, I add $50 extra per child to the security deposit since kids usually cause more damage than normal. Is this legal?
A: No. A landlord cannot require a higher security deposit from people who have minor children than from people without minor children. It is unlawful to set deposits based on the stereotype that children as a class cause more damage to property than others.
I have a two-story apartment building and I don't rent apartments above the first floor to people with small children. Children are much more active, running and jumping, so I get fewer neighbor complaints when they are on the first floor. Is this legal?
A: No. You cannot deny someone the opportunity to rent a unit just because they have children.
I recently placed an advertisement for a vacant unit that read "A great building for single professionals." Was this legal?
A: It is illegal to advertise in a manner that states or suggests a preference. The advertisement you placed discourages families with children from applying to rent your vacant unit. It also discourages married couples and partnered couples form applying for your vacant unit.
Can I have a "No Pets" policy?
A: If you are not a federally funded housing provider, it is perfectly legal for you to have a "no pets" policy and/or to prefer some animals over others. However, a housing provider must make an exception to this "no pets" policy if a person with a disability requires a support animal and requests a reasonable accommodation to the policy. You can find out more information about reasonable accommodations in the HUD/DOJ Joint Statement on reasonable accommodations here.
I have a "No Pets" policy at all the apartment buildings I own. I recently had a visually impaired tenant who needed a seeing eye dog apply for a unit..
...I allowed her to have her dog, but charged her a pet deposit in case the animal does damage. Was this legal?
A: No. You were right to allow the accommodation to your policy in light of the tenant's need for the support animal. However, you cannot charge a pet rent, a pet fee, or a pet deposit for support animals. You can find out more information about reasonable accommodations in the HUD/DOJ Joint Statement on reasonable accommodations here.
A tenant recently asked for an accommodation to have an emotional support animal. This dog doesn't have any formal training as a service animal. Do I have to let her have the dog?
A: The Fair Housing Act does not require that support animals be trained in order to be a reasonable accommodation. There is a training requirement under the Americans with Disability Act if people wish to bring their service animals with them to public accommodations. You can learn more about the differences between the two laws here.
I just received a rental application for a two-bedroom unit from a family of four: two adults and two children. One of the children is a boy and the other is a girl.
...I turned them down because I think the children should each have a separate room since they are different sexes. Was that legal?
A: No. You cannot require that children of opposite sexes have separate bedrooms. These decisions are within the parents' control and not the landlord's.
I recently found out that the on-site manager of the building I own has been harassing the female tenants. Am I legally liable for this?
A: Yes. As the owner of the building, you are legally responsible for the actions of your management personnel, maintenance staff, and any other agents you employ. Under both federal and state fair housing laws, sexual harassment of tenants is illegal.
A disabled tenant at one of my apartment buildings wants to install a ramp. Do I have to let her do this?
A: Under the fair housing laws, a disabled tenant can request a reasonable modification, which is a change in the physical structure of a building. If the modification is required to give the disabled tenant full use and enjoyment of her unit then you must grant the request. However, in most cases the tenant is responsible to cover the cost of the modification.
What should I look for in selecting a tenant?
A: The most important thing for you to determine is whether the tenant will be able to pay the rent in a regular, timely manner. You will also want to know that the tenant will not disturb other tenants and will keep the unit in a reasonable condition. These questions can often be answered by references from previous landlords, income verification and/or a credit bureau.
Do I have to accept people on welfare or social security?
A: Yes. In Minnesota, status with regard to public assistance is a protected class. "Status with regard to public assistance" is defined as, "the condition of being a recipient of federal, state, or local assistance, including medical assistance, or of being a tenant receiving federal, state, or local subsidies, including rental assistance or rent supplements." Therefore, as long as they meet all other requirements of tenancy, you cannot refuse to accept someone simply because they receive public assistance.
Under state or federal law, can an owner of an apartment complex refuse to rent any of its apartments to a family solely because the family includes a minor child?
A: No. Both the Fair Housing Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act protect families with children from discrimination. The only housing that is exempt from familial status discrimination provisions is Housing for Older Persons, a designation that has specific requirements that must be met. You can find more information on HUD's website here.
I've seen advertising for "senior only" buildings. Can they legally exclude children?
A: Yes. Complexes designed for senior citizens are exempt from the familial status restrictions, but must meet certain guidelines. Advertising of vacancies require specific language such as "housing for older persons." You can learn more about this type of housing on HUD's website here.
I would like to limit the number of people in my apartments to two adults and two children. Is there a problem with this?
A: It depends. The Department of Housing and Urban Development states that a landlord may set reasonable occupancy limits. HUD has said that two people per bedroom may be reasonable, depending on the size of the apartment, the amount of living space and the age of the occupants. Anything stricter (such as one person per bedroom) raises a red flag and requires further investigation. You can read more about this issue HERE.
I recently painted my apartments. Must I rent to people in wheelchairs who may bump into and mark the walls?
A: Yes. You cannot deny housing to qualified persons with disabilities. If there is damage that would be considered more than normal wear and tear, you may recover the repair costs through the security deposit. However, you may need to adjust your standards and consider what "ordinary wear and tear" would be from a person with a wheelchair.
Can I refuse to rent to couples living together who are not married?
A: Yes. In Cooper v. French, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that the protected class of "marital status" does not include single persons of the opposite sex cohabitating together. Therefore, refusing to rent to couples living together who are not married would not violate the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
A young man came to look at an apartment, and he did not appear to be well. I'm afraid he has AIDS. Do I have to rent to him?
A: Yes. If he is otherwise qualified, you cannot refuse to rent to him because you believe he might have AIDS. A person with AIDS, or who is believed to have AIDS, is protected under the law from discrimination on the basis of physical disability. Current medical information is that AIDS is not contagious through casual contact so there is no danger to you or your tenants by renting to someone with AIDS.
A family with several children came to look at one of our apartments. The children were noisy and unruly, yelling and running in the hallways...
...and the parents made no attempt to control the children's behavior. Do I have to rent to this family?
A: Not if you have reason to believe the family would not take care of the property or would not abide by the rules. Checking references may give you some additional information about the past and present behavior of this family and provide you with documentation for your decision. You cannot refuse to rent to a person just because they have children, but you may refuse to rent to a family that you believe will not fulfill tenancy requirements.
Can I refuse to rent to people whose sexual orientation offends me?
A: No. Sexual orientation is a protected class under Minnesota law.
If an applicant or tenant requests an accommodation due to a disability, can a housing provider require documentation that he or she needs the accommodation?
A: A housing provider may ask an applicant or tenant to verify that they have a disability and need accommodation. The type of verification needed will depend on the specifics of the situation and may be provided by a doctor or other medical professional, a peer support group, or a service agency. However, the applicant or tenant is not required to tell the housing provider the specifics of their disability or to give the housing provider a full copy of their medical history. They only need to provide proof that they have a covered disability, that an accommodation is needed, why the accommodation is needed, and why the accommodation they are proposing will be helpful. You can find out more information about reasonable accommodations in the HUD/DOJ Joint Statement on Reasonable Accommodations here.
The apartments on the upper floors of my building have balconies. I don't think they're safe for children to play. Can I refuse to rent these apartments to families with young children?
A: This is a complicated question without a good answer. Minnesota law allows landlords to adopt reasonable rules intended to protect the safety of children. However, there is no similar provision in the overriding federal Fair Housing Act, so it is unclear if a housing provider who is covered by both the MHRA and the FHA would be safe with different terms and conditions for children, even if motivated by reasonable safety concerns.
In 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found probable cause of discrimination in a case where an Illinois housing provider had denied children use of facilities at the complex including a swimming pool, a hot tub, an exercise room, and a laundry room unless accompanied by an adult. The case settled, and therefore there was no final determination on the legitimacy of these types of "safety restrictions." (The settlement did allow the housing provider to maintain some restrictions, but required much more specification with regard to reasonable age cut offs for the various facilities - i.e., only children under the age of 13 were required to have adult supervision while using the laundry facilities, and only children under the age of 16 were required to have adult supervision while using the pool.) Because it is not clear whether a housing provider can implement the types of conditions, the best course of action would be to seek legal advice and tread lightly.
Do I have to rent to sexual offenders or people with criminal histories?
A: It is very important to be careful in this area. How do you know that an individual is a 'sex offender'? If you know this for a fact, a person who is a registered sex offender is not protected under state or federal law for that designation. You may deny housing to a person who you know is a registered sex offender.
The same applies to 'people with criminal histories'. How do you know? And in this case, does the crime that the individual was convicted for (make sure they were convicted and not merely 'charged' with a crime) related to the likelihood that they will be a bad tenant? Drug dealing and domestic violence may be considered to be factors which would impact an individual's likelihood to be a good tenant.
If I make a reasonable accommodation for one person, say to allow a companion animal in my "no pets" building, what do I tell the other tenants about this?
A: You don't need to tell the other tenants anything about the accommodation, and you probably shouldn't in order to respect the privacy of the requesting tenant. However, if someone asks you about it, you can say something like, "our office will consider every request for an animal on a case by case basis."
Do I have to rent to someone with a Section 8 voucher?
A: It depends. Although "status with regard to public assistance" is protected under Minnesota laws, the Minnesota courts have found that a private housing provider can choose to not participate in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Minneapolis and St. Paul and Duluth ordinances are similar and may be interpreted in the same way. However, some buildings with tax credits and other government funds may not reject vouchers used by qualified tenants.
I am opposed to people relying on the government. Can I refuse to accept tenants whose damage deposits are paid by government agencies?
A: No. Status with regard to public assistance is protected under Minnesota law. Public assistance includes any form of assistance from federal, state or local governments. If you deny someone the ability to rent from you because they receive a government subsidy, that is a violation of the law.
We just received a civil rights complaint. What happens now?
A: Housing complaints can be filed with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) or a local agency such as the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.
Fair housing agencies follow similar procedures for investigating complaints. Housing providers, called "Respondents", are required to respond to the complaint within a brief time. Fair housing agencies offer opportunities to resolve the case throughout the investigation. These agencies use a mediation-style dispute resolution process to attempt a voluntary settlement of cases.
The enforcement agencies are neutral fact-finders. They gather and evaluate documentation, interview relevant witnesses, conduct on-site visits, etc. The resident and housing provider(s) have an opportunity to respond to each other's positions, the material and relevant evidence available to the agency is reviewed, and then the agency makes a final written report.
If an investigation finds insufficient evidence to support the issues, the case is closed with a "no cause" finding. The complaining party may appeal or request a reconsideration, and the respondent has an opportunity to respond to the appeal.
If there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations, a "reasonable cause" or "probable cause" finding is issued, the agency assists the parties in conciliating the matter, and the parties sign a settlement agreement. If the parties do not settle, the case is usually referred to the agency's legal department (state cases are referred to the Attorney General's office and federal cases are referred to the Department of Justice), and there is an administrative hearing or a complaint filed in court.
What are good practices to make sure my business does not discriminate?
A: Here are some helpful tips for housing providers to make sure they don't violate civil rights laws:
• 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. (Note: the exception to this rule would be if you are making a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability.)
• Remember: Retaliation is illegal
Never allow the filing of a fair housing complaint to influence your decision to take any action against a tenant.
• Distinguish between senior living and familial status discrimination
Retirement housing and housing for seniors are allowed, but must adhere to the guidelines imposed by the Fair Housing Act. It is illegal to exclude children as tenants unless the housing meets all the requirements of senior housing detailed in the regulations. See HUD's requirements here.
• 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
(at the tenant's expense)
• 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.
• 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 and fair housing policies 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 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.