The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was written to ensure equal treatment for any person seeking housing in the United States.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) built on earlier laws—including the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibited discrimination in housing based on race. At first, the 1968 Act extended these protections to people based on their religion and national origin. Gender was added in 1974. Then, in 1988, Congress passed the Fair Housing Amendments Act, which further protects people from housing discrimination because of disability or family status.
Federal law protects seven "classes" from discrimination
Today, the federal FHA prevents a landlord from discriminating against an individual based on seven "protected classes," or personal characteristics shared by a group of people. 1 These are:
- National origin
- Familial status
- Disability or handicap
Criminal records shouldn't automatically disqualify an applicant
Guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also prohibits blanket refusal to provide housing based on the presence of a criminal record,2 although people with criminal or housing court records are not technically a protected class under the FHA. In 2014, the owners and manager of a 900-unit rental complex in Queens were sued in federal court for their policy of never renting to people with criminal records. The plaintiff argued that this disproportionately affected black and Latino men, and was therefore illegal under the FHA.3 The case was settled in 2019, with the landlords agreeing to pay over $1 million.4
To avoid a lawsuit, HUD suggests that landlords create a tenant screening policy that takes into consideration what the crime was and when it happened. That way, they can more fairly determine whether a person’s criminal record is likely to affect their ability to comply with their lease—and whether the policy truly assists in protecting the safety and property of other residents.
Discriminatory actions are prohibited under the Fair Housing Act
When renting out an apartment or home, it’s illegal to do the following things if the decision was motivated by any of the protected categories:5
- Refuse to rent to someone, or lie about the availability of a rental
- Make, print, or publish an advertisement that indicates any preference, restriction, or discrimination based on a protected category
- Set different standards for qualifying or applying to a rental (such as income criteria or application fees)
- Price units differently
- Delay or refuse to make repairs
- Limit or unequally enforce the terms and conditions of a rental (for example, only charging certain tenants late fees, or only allowing certain tenants to use the common spaces)
- Evict a tenant or their guest
These laws also extend to anyone who lives with or associates with people from a protected group. For instance, it’s illegal for a landlord to treat an able-bodied tenant differently if their guests are disabled.
Certain rental properties are exempt from the Fair Housing Act
Federal fair housing laws don’t apply to every rental property. Four categories of housing are exempt:
- Owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer rental units (sometimes referred to as the "Mrs. Murphy" exemption, after an imaginary widow who rents out rooms in her home)
- Single-family housing that is rented without using a broker or advertisements (as long as the landlord doesn’t own more than three such homes at once)
- Member-only housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs
- Housing reserved for senior citizens (exempt from fair housing laws relating to familial status, only)
There are no exemptions to the FHA’s laws around advertising, which ban landlords from making, printing, or publishing discriminatory statements. No one is exempt from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, either, which outlaws any type of racial discrimination when renting or selling property.
Complaints must be filed within a year
A person who believes they have been discriminated against while looking for or living in rental housing must file a complaint within one year of the alleged incident. The complaint must be in writing.6
Keep in mind that many states have adopted their own laws, which offer broader protections than federal law. (No state is allowed to eliminate any of the protections offered by the national FHA, however.) Choose your state from the drop-down menu to understand the rules where you rent.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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