While it should go without saying that no individual or family should become a victim of housing discrimination – it can and does happen. As a landlord, housing discrimination claims can have devastating legal and financial consequences. Therefore, understanding the origins and rules of the Fair Housing Act is necessary. These federal fair housing laws protect tenants throughout the rental process and other housing transactions. So, continue reading below as we review fair housing regulations and how to avoid costly claims of discrimination.
What are Federal Fair Housing Laws?
In 1968, the federal government created the Fair Housing Act. At their core, federal fair housing laws protect individuals from housing discrimination in both purchases and rentals. This includes protecting individuals with disabilities from being discriminated against for requesting reasonable accommodation due to their condition. Furthermore, these laws also cover harassment, retaliatory behavior, and excusatory marketing.
Federal fair housing laws distinguish specific “protected classes” and protect them against discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, disability, familial status, and national origin.
That said, states and local jurisdictions often add additional protections for individuals and families. Therefore, it is vital that landlords research protected classes in their area. Some examples of other protected classes include citizenship, age, veteran status, genetic makeup, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, criminal history, and source of income.
HUD Fair Housing News
In February of 2021, HUD or The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would use the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This change took effect immediately and means that FHEO will now investigate any complaints of sex discrimination, including discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation, that meet other jurisdictional requirements.
Fair Housing Laws in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania, like all other states, is dedicated to protecting renters from unlawful discrimination. Thus, ensuring equal access to decent, affordable, and safe housing. So, through state fair housing laws, Pennsylvania safeguards against discrimination based on race, color, sex, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, age, national origin, handicap or disability, use of guide support animal due to blindness, deafness, or physical handicap. This is an addition to all applicable federal fair housing laws.
Depending on location, regulations may change, and federal fair housing laws will evolve from time to time. Therefore, landlords need to remain current on applicable policies. That said, the best way for landlords to avoid devastating discrimination claims is to treat all applicants and tenants the same. Furthermore, treating all interactions with professionalism, respect, and legal compliance is just good business practice.
Do Federal Fair Housing Laws Always Apply?
As with many other laws, there are always a few exceptions to the rule. In some cases, fair housing laws may not apply or may not apply in the same way under certain circumstances. However, even exempt housing under the Fair Housing Act must follow the law which bans discriminatory statements, notices, or advertising. So, let’s review a few housing types below in which the Fair Housing Act does not apply.
- Owner-Occupied Buildings – In general, fair housing laws do not apply to buildings with between 2 and 4 units where the owner lives in one.
- Some Single-family Homes – If the owner owns less than three homes and the unit was rented without a broker; the Fair Housing Act does not apply.
- Religious Organizations – Religious organizations that lease apartments on a property not operating for a commercial purpose may legally limit occupancy or give preferences to people of the organization’s religion. That said, while religious organizations receive some leeway, they still cannot discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.
- Private Clubs – When leasing a property that is part of a private club, but not for a commercial purpose, federal fair housing laws allow the owner to limit occupancy to club members.
- Senior Housing – Properties that participate in federal or state senior housing programs or are restricted 55 or 62 and older communities are exempt.
Landlord Responsibilities Under the Fair Housing Act
To successfully run a rental property business, landlords must adhere to a wide variety of laws and regulations. This includes local, state, and federal fair housing laws. That said, violating these laws is not just poor business practice; it is a legal nightmare. So, landlord responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act include the following –
- Provide all applicants and tenants with fair and equal housing
- Do not engage in any harassing or retaliatory behavior
- Comply with reasonable accommodation requests from applicants or tenants with disabilities
- Treat each prospect equally and allow everyone a chance to apply for the rental
- Avoid discriminatory advertising
- Know all local, state, and federal fair housing laws inside and out. If necessary, hire a qualified real estate attorney or property management company to ensure procedures and practices are legal.
Tips to Avoid Fair Housing Act Violations
Violating fair housing laws is not an option if you want to be successful as a landlord. Plus, property owners face potentially disastrous legal ramifications and financial penalties. Therefore, it is essential to consider local, state, and federal fair housing laws when creating policies, documents, advertising, and procedures. Check out our top tips for avoiding fair housing disputes below.
Remain Consistent and Transparent Throughout the Rental Process
It is imperative that all tenant screening policies remain consistent and compliant with Fair Housing standards. Therefore, landlords must use the same standards, documentation, fees, and requirements for every applicant. Thus, reducing the chance of individuals making accusations of steering, favoritism, or discrimination. In addition, all screening policies or qualifications should be clearly defined and available to all applicants and prospects. Finally, once established, owners should not deny applicants based on criteria beyond the standards set forth. So, it is a good idea to post the basic qualifications directly with your rental ad to help avoid any disputes.
Mind Your Language
Everything you say, either verbally or in written form, is open to scrutiny as a landlord. That said, any owner, employee, or representative must adhere to the same standards when interacting with the public in any way. This also extends to rental marketing, property tours, and printed materials. So, to avoid any questionable language, be sure to focus solely on the property and its features.
Invest in Fair Housing Training
Whether owners self-manage or employ staff, consistent training on the specifics and importance of fair housing laws is vital. Thus, every employee or representative should have a working knowledge of anti-discrimination standards. There are various online fair housing training resources and workshops to help get owners and staff on the same page and aid in training.
What Happens if Landlords Violate Fair Housing Laws?
A claim of discrimination spells trouble for property owners in more ways than one. That said, the responsibility of enforcing Fair Housing laws falls on the FHEO or Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. This office is a sector of the Department of Housing and Urban Development that focuses on eliminating housing discrimination while promoting civil rights and economic opportunity. Typically, federal fair housing laws are enforced using two methods –
- Fair Housing “Tests”– The FHEO often uses undercover employees to pose as prospects to “test” an owner’s compliance. Thus, allowing them to evaluate a landlord’s verbal and written interactions firsthand.
- Investigating Claims – If individuals feel they were a victim of unfair treatment, discrimination, or any Fair Housing Act violation, they can file a claim with the FHEO. Then, government officials will investigate the report and decide what further action is necessary.
Fair Housing Violation Penalties
Landlords face legal and financial penalties for violating fair housing laws that may include –
- For complaints tried before a HUD Administrative Law Judge, civil penalties may be up to $16,000 for a first violation. That said, penalties can increase to as much as $65,000 for third violations.
- Civil penalties for any complaints brought by the Justice Department can be up to $150,000.
- In addition to the civil penalties above, courts may award victims out-of-pocket costs incurred to obtain alternative housing plus any added costs associated with that housing.
- Landlords may need to pay non-economic damages to victims for humiliation, mental anguish, or other psychological injuries in some cases.
In addition, victims can file complaints for up to 1 year after the incident with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or within two years in Federal Court. Furthermore, residents of Pennsylvania can also file with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for up to 180 days after the incident.
The Best Way to Protect Your Rental from Fair Housing Claims
No matter how large or small your rental portfolio is, protecting it from legal or financial disputes is critical. There is simply no excuse for landlords not to know or not follow any applicable local, state, or federal fair housing laws. However, even with the knowledge and best of intentions, landlords can make mistakes.
Savvy investors know that hiring a qualified property management firm is one of the best ways to protect a rental business from discrimination claims. In addition, experienced property managers can ensure compliance across all business interactions, including customer service, leasing, and marketing.
Bay Property Management offers rental owners the benefit of our tried-and-true practices and well-trained staff to ensure Fair Housing compliance. Additionally, our team handles all day-to-day operations from maintenance to accounting to keep your business the profitable and stress-free experience it should be. We are committed to providing equal housing opportunities under the law while protecting landlord interests through comprehensive tenant screening. So, give us a call today to find out more about how to protect and maximize your rental investment.