As a landlord, you want to find the right tenant for your property. Whether you realize it or not, you probably have a picture-perfect idea of who you want to live there.
You do the same thing when making friends, looking for a partner, choosing a job, or finding a place to put down roots.
However, The Fair Housing Act lists several fair housing laws that ensure every candidate gets an equal chance when renting or buying a home—regardless of their race, color, sex, or religion.
Intentional or not, housing discrimination can lead to costly fines and long-term penalities. It's not something you can ask for forgiveness instead of ask for permission.
Not aware of all the details and laws surrounding tenant screening? You've come to the right place.
Below, we'll walk you through everything you need to know about fair housing laws to protect yourself:
- What Are Federal Fair Housing Laws?
- State and Local Fair Housing Laws
- Penalties for Failure to Comply
- 11 Fair Housing Laws to Keep in Mind
- Keep Yourself Safe With a Partner That Knows All the Rules
What Are Federal Fair Housing Laws?
The federal government enacted The Fair Housing Act in 1968 to give all citizens the same rights to "inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.”
The government has amended the statute several times over the years. As of 2022, here's the list of protections:
- National origin
- Familial status
For example, you can't deny a family with small children or an applicant of a different religion than you.
There are also a handful of other nuances granting protections under special circumstances (for pet owners, occupancy limits, and the like), but we'll get into all those nitty-gritty details below.
Don't Forget State and Local Fair Housing Laws
State and local jurisdictions have the right to expand on The Fair Housing Act protections, but they can't detract from or reduce them.
For example, landlords in New York can't ask about an applicant's criminal record. They also can't make decisions based on immigration status or lawful occupation.
And in Colorado, the state has added protected classes for people's ancestry, creed, and source of income.
Check your state's individual housing laws to ensure you're in compliance.
Failure to Comply With Fair Housing Laws Is Expensive
Fair housing laws aren't something you want to screw up. Get it wrong, and you could face some costly fines:
- $16,000 maximum civil penalties for a first violation
- $37,500 for an additional violation with the previous 5-year period
- $65,000 for violations if you have two or more violations within the previous 7-year period
- Attorney fees
- Compensation for tenant's "out-of-pocket expenses and emotional distress damages"
- Permanent injunctive relief
- Equitable relief
11 Fair Housing Laws to Keep Top of Mind
Let's dive into the details of what's prohibited by the Fair Housing Act:
- Discriminating Against Protected Groups During the Screening Process
- Advertising for a Particular Type of Tenant
- Falsely Denying Access to Listings or Housing Information
- Changing Services or Fees Based on Discriminating Factors
- Setting Varying Qualification Criteria for Different Applicants
- Harassing, Threatening, or Disrespecting a Tenant's Rights
- Failing or Delaying Timely Maintenance or Repairs
- Refusing to Make Reasonable Accommodations
- Denying Owners of Service Animals or ESAs
- Misusing Occupancy Limitations
- Attempting to Persuade Neighbors to Sell Their Homes Based on Discrimination
1. Discriminating Against Protected Groups During the Screening Process
Applicants are protected from the following during the tenant screening process:
- Race: Physical, behavioral, or cultural groups
- Color: The color of one's skin
- Religion: A person's faith, beliefs, or practices, whether they're practicing or not
- Sex: Includes one's sexual orientation or gender
- National origin: Includes someone's nationality or language proficiency
- Familial status: Includes families with young children, babies, pregnant women, or senior citizens (exceptions for approved senior housing complexes)
- Disability: Includes physical disabilities or mental impairments, as well as alcoholism or drug addiction (as long as the tenant is in a recovery program)—however, illegal drug use is not protected
Example: Refusing to accept a pregnant woman's application because you worry the newborn baby will disturb neighbors or other tenants.
2. Advertising for a Particular Type of Tenant
Your rental property's listing can't cater to particular types of tenants. This can exclude protected groups.
For example, you can't advertise only to Latinos because you want to create a community with a similar culture. You also can't rent only to women, men, or couples without children.
When you list your property, it must be available to all and inclusive to all—and this includes the copy you use in your marketing materials and property descriptions.
Example: Rejecting to consider a male tenant because you believe the property's location and amenities would better serve a woman or because you think a man might be more likely to trash the place.
3. Falsely Denying Access to Listings or Housing Information
You can't lie to someone about the status of a property. If someone asks if the property is available for rent, sale, or inspection, you can't make a false claim.
Doing so discriminates against the inquirer.
Example: Letting a white male inspect the house and then telling a black prospective tenant that the house is unavailable for inspection.
4. Changing Services or Fees Based on Discriminating Factors
You can't change the available services based on someone's status. For example, you can't promise 2 parking spots and only grant 1 because a couple occupies the unit.
You also can't charge extra fees based on discriminating factors. That means you can't tack on additional fees for children.
Example: Demanding a tenant pay a higher security deposit because they have children.
5. Setting Varying Qualification Criteria for Different Applicants
Your qualification criteria must be the same for all applicants. You can't charge higher application fees or change application requirements for one applicant and not another.
Example: Requiring additional documentation in the application for a transgender tenant.
6. Harassing, Threatening, or Disrespecting a Tenant's Rights
Everyone needs to be treated equally in the tenant screening process. You can't try to threaten or scare off an applicant because you don't want them to become a resident.
Harassment can include creating a nuisance, entering the property without just cause or notice, or physically intimidating someone.
Example: Throwing a loud, obnoxious party next door to ruin your tenant's peaceful evening and hopefully get them to leave.
7. Failing or Delaying Timely Maintenance or Repairs
You can't refuse to make repairs or delay maintenance because you don't like someone. This could be seen as discriminatory.
Example: Repeatedly "forgetting" to fix the tenant's dishwasher because you want them to get frustrated and leave.
8. Refusing to Make Reasonable Accommodations
A reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a service, rule, policy, or practice for special groups. If a disabled person wanted to rent your property, but there was no wheelchair ramp, you might be expected to allow them to install one as a reasonable accommodation. Or they might want to install grab bars in the bathroom to help with mobility problems.
Example: Denying a deaf tenant's request to install a peephole in their front door.
9. Denying Owners of Service Animals or ESAs
Landlords can't discriminate against emotional support animals (ESAs), service animals, or their owners. That means you can't deny an ESA-owning tenant's application because of your no-pet policy, and you also can't charge additional fees because of the animals.
Example: Not allowing a tenant to bring their ESA inside due to your property's no-pet policy.
10. Misusing Occupany Limitations
Landlords sometimes use occupancy limitations to prevent families with small children from inhabiting a property. While occupancy limits are a genuine concern, you must make sure you use a consistent and fair method to determine this limitation.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses the Keating Memorandum to establish a loose 2-person per bedroom occupancy expectation. However, special circumstances in the memo can be used to expand or reduce this number.
Example: Putting a 2-person occupancy limit on a property with 2 bedrooms.
11. Attempting to Persuade Neighbors to Sell Their Homes Based on Discrimination
It's illegal to lie to your neighbors about new incoming tenants' characteristics in an attempt to get them to sell their homes quickly before the value of their property drops—this is known as blockbusting.
Example: Warning Christian homeowners that Jewish families moving into the area will negatively impact the value of their homes.
Keep Yourself Safe With a Partner That Knows All the Rules
Even the best landlords with the best intentions can make mistakes when it comes to fair housing laws—there are a lot of rules and details to remember.
Fortunately, you don't have to do it all on your own.
Partner with Nomad, and we'll do the heavy lifting of marketing your property and finding top-notch tenants. We understand the rules and ensure compliance with all tenant screening laws—protecting you, your property, and your tenants.
Plus, we handle all the other nitty-gritty work, too, such as writing up contracts, collecting rent, and keeping up with routine maintenance. You just sit back, relax, and enjoy the guaranteed monthly income.
Get started now to learn how much no-hassle cash you could be making from your rental properties.