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Housing Discrimination Laws: How to Protect Yourself

Housing Discrimination Laws: How to Protect Yourself

Landlord discrimination is a real and significant problem… and it’s also very illegal. However, many tenants don’t understand their rights or how to enforce them. Without this key knowledge, you can become a victim without even realizing it.

In this article, we’re going to cover several important topics related to housing discrimination. Among other things, we’re going to discuss:

  • Types of housing discrimination
  • Categories of housing discrimination
  • Exempt properties

Housing discrimination isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

Discrimination is complicated! There are many, many ways a landlord can break this law. If you aren’t aware of your rights, you may not even notice!

Sure, there are obvious acts of discrimination. It is clearly illegal for a landlord to refuse to rent to members of a certain race, color, religion, age or gender. It’s also obvious discrimination when a landlord creates different rules for different tenants.

However, there are many subtle forms of discrimination that you may not notice. Offhand questions about the types of food you cook, the holidays you celebrate or the way you raise your children may all be forms of discrimination.

We’ve given many examples in the categories below. If you have any other questions, be sure to reach out in the comments!

AdobeStock 148834736 1 housing discrimination

Housing discrimination is illegal.

Federal law states that landlords cannot discriminate against you on the basis of your race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, age, physical disability or mental disability.

Many of us have heard this law before but we haven’t really analyzed what it means. For example, did you know the law against sex discrimination also protects victims of domestic abuse? I didn’t!

In the following sections, I’m going to break down this law in detail. We’ll discuss what is prohibited and some examples of prohibited behavior.

Race, Color and National Origin

Although they are certainly related, race and color are listed separately because they aren’t exactly the same thing. Racial discrimination focuses on race and its associated characteristics (such as hair texture or facial features). Color discrimination focuses on skin color or complexion only.

This type of discrimination can occur when landlords:

  • use racial slurs
  • make offensive remarks
  • display racially-offensive symbols
  • create different rules, lease terms or prices for different tenants

National origin is closely related to these things. This type of discrimination focuses on a person’s place of birth, ancestry or ethnicity. Often, discrimination based on national origin focuses on the language, customs, and dress associated with someone’s origin.

Housing discrimination based on national origin may occur when landlords:

  • Ask about the tenant’s food preferences because they don’t want strong scents (such as curry) in the unit or complex
  • Refuse to rent to people with non-US identification
  • Make repairs for some tenants but not others
  • Refuse to speak to a tenant’s translator
  • Mock the tenant’s accent
  • Threaten to call Immigration Services when the tenant complains
  • Say things like “This is how we do things in this country.”

It’s important to be aware of state laws on this issue, also. For example, it is illegal for landlords in California to ask for US-issued identification documents or proof of your immigration status. They must accept foreign-issued identification if it is provided. California landlords must also translate the lease into whatever language was used to verbally negotiate the lease.


Anti-discrimination laws protect both the practice and non-practice of religion, so they apply equally to devout religious people and atheists. The law also protects uncommon or controversial religions, like Satanism.

Many people don’t realize this, but it also protects people who are simply perceived as a certain religion, such as Muslim. If the landlord discriminates you because they think you belong to a certain religion, it doesn’t matter if you actually are or aren’t part of that religion. You are still protected under the law.

Religious discrimination can occur when landlords:

  • Proselyte
  • Ask about your religion or religious rituals
  • Place religious decor (like crucifixes) in common areas
  • Refuse to rent to people who wear religious attire (such as turbans or hijabs)
  • Suggest that you move to a neighborhood with a religious meetinghouse (such as a mosque or Church)
  • Refuse to allow people to use common community rooms for religious purposes (but allow others to use them for parties or other religious gatherings
  • Enforce different decoration rules for tenants of different religions

I want to expound on that last one a little. You are allowed to decorate the inside of your unit however you like, within the landlord’s rules. They are allowed to prohibit the use of nails or screws to hang items on walls, but this has to be a universal rule for all tenants. The landlord cannot only enforce this rule with tenants that want to hang religious decorations. If outside decorations are allowed, the landlord cannot suddenly change their mind just because someone complained about your religious decor. They can’t allow Christmas lights but prevent you from hanging other religious decor. Does that make sense?

Landlords are also not required to change their rules to accommodate religious rituals. For example, if the landlord has an existing rule prohibiting the use of candles on the property, the tenant cannot force the landlord to allow the use candles in a religious ceremony.

Sex Discrimination (and Sexual Harassment)

Landlords are prohibited from engaging in sex discrimination and sexual harassment. This happens when landlords treat men and women differently or when they discriminate against people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

A landlord may commit sex discrimination when they:

  • Insist on speaking to a man, not a woman
  • Refuse to rent to an LGBT individual
  • Instruct a transgender person to avoid common areas of the property
  • Refuse an application by two men because they might be a gay couple
  • Insist single women live in top-floor apartments (in theory, to prevent break-ins)

It is important to realize that this segment also protects victims of domestic violence. Landlords who show a preference or deference to the abusing spouse may be guilty of sex discrimination.

The landlord is legally obligated to assist the victim, so they may commit sex discrimination if they:

  • Refuse to change the locks for a domestic violence victim
  • Refuse to take the abusing spouse off the lease
  • Evict a woman who obtained a restraining order against her husband

Sexual harassment is defined as making repeated, unsolicited sexual comments or physical contact. This may occur before or after you have signed a lease or moved into the property. Not only does this law protect tenants from being abused from the property owner, it also protects tenants from being harassed by maintenance staff and other tenants as well.

The landlord is legally required to protect the victim, so they may commit sex discrimination if they:

  • Inappropriately touch or make sexual comments toward a tenant
  • Demand sexual favors in order to complete repairs or maintenance
  • Refuse to evict a tenant who sexually harasses or assaults another victim
  • Refuse to fire maintenance staff who repeatedly make sexual comments to or about tenants

Familial Status & Age

In 2009, my husband and I applied to rent a six bedroom home in Utah. At the time, we had two children and I was pregnant with our third. When the landlord asked if we had pets, we jokingly replied, “Nope, just the children.”

“Children are worse than pets,” he sneered with an eye roll, “but legally I have to rent to you anyway.”

We laughed awkwardly, not realizing just how serious this landlord was. Over the next nine months of our lease, he would literally measure our grass with a ruler every week to see if we were in compliance with the strict terms of our lease. He even called CPS on our family after his maintenance company caused our master bedroom ceiling to collapse. It was the worst rental experience we have ever had.

This, my friends, is discrimination based on familial status. It is not legal for a landlord to discriminate against you just because you have children or are pregnant.

Sometimes, housing discrimination based on familial status happens when a landlord:

  • Indicates they don’t want to rent to a family with children
  • Set unreasonably low occupancy limits on housing units
  • Enforce different rules on families with children than other tenants
  • Call CPS on your family or threaten to call CPS if you complain
  • Refuse to maintain the unit because “children will mess it up anyway”
  • Place families with children in one area of the property, away from other tenants

Some tenants also discriminate against other age groups, such as Millennials or the elderly. Like all discrimination, this is usually based on some stereotype or irrational concern about that group.

Landlords may commit housing discrimination based on age when they:

  • Refuse to rent to people over a certain age
  • Ask about your medical history, medications or caregiver needs
  • Refuse to show you available units because they want you to live in a certain part of the property

Physical & Mental Disabilities

Of course, it is also illegal for landlords to commit housing discrimination based on physical or mental disabilities. This law protects people who have a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The law also protects those who have a history of a disability or are assumed to have a disability.

Protected disabilities include, but are not limited to, hearing impairments, visual impairments, mobility impairments, mental illness, HIV/AIDS, and more. Mental health disorders and emotional disabilities are also protected under the law.

Former drug addicts and people with chronic alcoholism are also protected under the law, although there are strict requirements for these groups. In order to be protected, chronic alcoholics must be actively and regularly participating in medical treatment or an AA program. Former drug addicts, including those with prior convictions for illegal drug use, are protected also. Those with convictions for manufacturing or dealing drugs are not included under this law.

Landlords may commit housing discrimination against disabilities when they:

  • Ask if you have a disability or illness
  • Ask to see your medical records or medications
  • Insist that you must live in a certain area of the property

It is also important to realize that landlords are required to provide reasonable accommodations to you if you need them. Accommodations could include providing a parking space, accepting a service animal, or installing grab bars in the bathroom. The accommodations must be reasonable and not interfere with the landlord’s ability to run their business. Radical changes, like installing an elevator to a third-floor apartment, are not considered reasonable.

If you seek accommodations, the landlord is allowed to ask for evidence of your need from a medical professional. You will simply need a letter from your provider that certifies that you are under that provider’s care and that the changes you want are appropriate to your situation.

There are exemptions to the housing discrimination law.

Not all housing providers or units have to follow the federal Fair Housing Law. However, even these properties may be governed by state and local fair housing laws. You’ll need to check your local laws for that information.

Owner-occupied buildings that have four or fewer rental units are exempt from these laws.

Single family housing that is rented without the use of advertising or a real estate broker are also exempt, as long as the landlord does not own more than three of these units.

Religious Organizations are exempt from the law that bans religious discrimination. They can discriminate on the basis of religion if they offer the housing for non-commercial purposes and the religion itself does not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. If the religious organization does not follow both rules, they are not exempt.

Private Clubs are allowed to limit occupancy to their own members.

There are two types of Senior Citizen Only housing projects are obviously exempt from the age discrimination law. The first type requires that every tenant be at least 62 years old or older. The second type requires that 80% of the units be occupied by someone that is at least 55 years old.

Are you a victim of housing discrimination?

If you’ve been a victim of housing discrimination, then you need to do something to protect yourself (and to protect others from being discriminated against in the future). We all must stand together to put an end to discrimination.

HUD Housing

If you have Section 8 or live in a HUD housing complex, then you can bring your complaint straight to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. You can access their complaint form right here.

Contact Your State Officials

I live in Washington State, so I would contact the Washington State Human Rights Commission. The complaint has to be filed within one year of the date of the violation.

Most states have an office like this. Here’s a list:

Alabama: United States Attorneys Office (Southern District)

AlaskaCommission for Human Rights (FEPA)

Arizona: Attorney General’s Office – Civil Rights Division

Arkansas: Fair Housing Commission

California: Attorney General’s Office – Civil Rights Division

ColoradoCivil Rights Division

Connecticut: Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities

Delaware: Secretary of State’s Office of Human Relations

DC: Office of Human Rights

Florida: Commission on Human Relations

Georgia: Commission on Equal Opportunity

Hawaii: Civil Rights Commission

Idaho: Human Rights Commission

Illinois: Department of Human Rights

Indiana: Civil Rights Commission

Iowa: Civil Rights Commission

KansasHuman Rights Commission

KentuckyCommission on Human Rights

LouisianaCommission on Human Right

MaineHuman Rights Commission

MarylandCommission on Human Relations

Massachusetts: Commission Against Discrimination

Michigan: Department of Civil Rights

Minnesota: Department of Human Rights

Mississippi: Department of Employment Security

Missouri: Commission on Human Rights

Montana: Human Rights Bureau

Nebraska: Equal Opportunity Commission

Nevada: Equal Rights Commission

New Hampshire: Commission for Human Rights

New Jersey: Division on Civil Rights

New Mexico: Human Rights Commission

New York: State Division of Human Rights

North Carolina: Human Relations Commissio

North Dakota: Human Rights Division

Ohio: Civil Rights Commission

Oklahoma: Human Rights Commission

Oregon: Civil Rights Division

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission

Rhode Island:  Commission for Human Rights

SOuth Carolina: Human Affairs Commission

South Dakota: Division of Human Rights

Tennessee: Human Rights Commission

Texas: Civil Rights Division

Utah: Anti-discrimination and Labor Division

Vermont: Human Rights Commission

Virginia: The Division of Human Rights

Washington: State Human Rights Commission

Virginia: Human Rights Commission

Wisconsin: Equal Rights Division

Wyoming: Department of Workforce Services: Your Labor Rights

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