While performing thorough screenings of potential tenants that include background and credit checks, employment and income verifications, and even communication with previous landlords, income property owners must be careful that they avoid discrimination practices when it comes to placing tenants in their rental properties.
What is Housing Discrimination?
Housing discrimination is when landlords start categorizing potential tenants based on who they are, rather than on the criteria of a legally compliant screening process, that trouble begins.
Today we will discuss the most important federal and state laws applying to housing discrimination so that you can be sure you, or your property management group, are not unintentionally discriminating against a protected class of people.
Fair Housing Act
The federal Fair Housing Act is contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It was designed to prohibit housing discrimination against any person falling under one of the seven groups of “protected classes.”
These seven groups include anyone that is unfairly treated when it comes to renting a home based on:
- National origin
- Familial status
- People with disabilities
In places such as Dundalk, Baltimore County’s largest city, chances are you will interact with people of all kinds, even those that are part of the “protected classes.” This is why being aware of certain prohibited actions is so important.
When leasing your property, under no circumstances can you take any of the following actions based on the seven protected categories of people:
- Make the rental home unavailable or falsely deny the home is available for rent
- Deny a lease agreement
- Set different terms, conditions, or privileges for leasing a property
- Provide different housing services or facilities
- Deny access to a membership or service related to the rental of the home
One of the most important, yet often overlooked, categories of protected classes offered protection under the law is families with children. This is something you may come across often, especially if you own a rental property in the family-friendly region of Parkville.
Landlords are forbidden from advertising their rental property as “adults only” or “no children allowed,” from restricting the number of children that may occupy a given space, or from encouraging families with children to occupy specific homes or building spaces in an effort to isolate them.
Equal Credit Opportunity Act
Enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) is dedicated to preventing credit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or because a person receives public assistance. Though you may ask for all of this information on a credit application to rent your home, it is not allowed to be used when determining whether a potential tenant is a good fit or not.
One of the most important criteria when deciding whether a tenant is approved to lease your home is their income. However, there are some things you may not do while evaluating your potential tenant’s credit according to the ECOA:
- Refuse to consider reliable public assistance income the same as other income. This may be especially apparent in a place such as Essex where the median income levels are significantly lower than the state’s average, despite the high cost of living
- Discount income due to marital status or sex. For instance, assuming a woman of child-bearing age will stop working and have a lower income in the future is not allowed
- Refuse to consider income because it comes from part-time employment, Social Security, pensions, or annuities. In places such as Towson or Catonsville, where there are many students attending university and may only have part-time jobs, take care not to deny a lease based solely on that fact
- Refuse to consider reliable alimony or child support, though you may ask to see proof of that steady income
Americans with Disabilities Act
Under both the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the federal government enforces anti-discrimination policies for those with disabilities.
Disabilities can be categorized as mental and physical conditions, and do not need to be severe or permanent to be considered disabilities. Some of the most common disabilities include:
- Intellectual disability
- Partially or completely missing limbs
- Use of a wheelchair
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection
- Major depressive disorder
The law protects those that have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s “major life activities.” This also includes those with a record of having an impairment, and even those intending to reside with a person that has such an impairment. It does however, exclude those who are illegally using or are addicted to drugs or other controlled substances.
As a landlord screening potential tenants, you may not:
- Ask a person with a disability questions differing than those asked of any other potential tenant
- Inquire about the nature or severity of a person’s disability
- Ask a person if they are capable of living alone
- Refuse to make reasonable changes in rules or policies which may be necessary for a person with a disability the equal opportunity to enjoy and use a rental home (e.g. lifting the “no pet” policy for someone in need of a service dog)
- Refuse the tenant the right to make reasonable modifications to the home in order to enjoy and use the home properly (e.g. installment of a wheelchair ramp or grab bars in the bathrooms)
In addition to any federal protection LGBT persons are afforded, Maryland has taken an extra step in protecting this category of people based on their “sexual orientation.”
Sexual orientation can be defined as:
“The identification of an individual as to male or female homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality. Gender identity is defined to mean the gender related identity, appearance, expression, or behavior of a person, regardless of the person’s assigned sex at birth.”
Though LGBT individuals are not specifically listed as a protected class under federal law, there are still a number of ways you may be found guilty of discriminating against LGBT individuals when it comes to renting your home.
The Justice Department has firmly stated that in any case involving discrimination based on “sex” (a protected class), the term can and will be construed to include gender discrimination, including discrimination against transgendered individuals. In addition, HUD’s own Secretary has publicly stated that gender identity discrimination is a direct violation of the Fair Housing Act.
So while federal law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against LGBT individuals, the current legal system has a certain flexibility to include such groups of people.
In the end, it is best to just be aware and not discriminate against anyone. Doing so may cause you to be investigated by the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, a situation best avoided.
Whether you own a home in the diverse market of Owings Mills or the more mature region of Pikesville, the truth is you will likely meet all kinds of different people in your quest to fill your vacant rental home. That’s why sometimes it is best to employ your favorite Baltimore County property management group to take on the tasks of managing your rental homes to avoid such serious matters as discrimination.
With knowledgeable staff on hand that is always up to date in the most current landlord-tenant housing laws, you will have the peace of mind that none of your potential tenants will experience the harsh reality that is discrimination. Instead, everyone will enjoy an equal opportunity to rent your home knowing that they were never screened because of who they were as people.