Although you may be able to rattle off the seven federally protected classes like a kindergartner reciting the alphabet, the landscape has shifted and Fair Housing discrimination has evolved to include far more than it once did. There are probably practices you don’t know you’re doing wrong that could land you in court, or at the very least, at the mercy of a Fair Housing tester.
But, before we explore any potential violations, let’s begin with a bit of history.
Despite the fact that Fair Housing laws were established in 1968, it wasn’t until 1991 that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) introduced its testing program and began testing in some states in 1992. Since its inception, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed hundreds of pattern and practice testing cases. According to the DOJ, the majority of testing cases filed in recent years are based on evidence of misrepresentation of availability or the offering of different terms and conditions based on race, national origin or familial status.
The Department of Justice has recovered more than $12.9 million including 3.3 million in civil penalties; proof that housing discrimination is still very much a problem in the US.
Further proof can be found in the 28,519 discrimination complaints that were filed in 2013, according to a 2013 Fair Housing Trends report. It is noted that the report is only reflective of reported incidents of discrimination and not indicative of the estimated 4 million violations each year which go unreported for various reasons including lack of knowledge and resources, belief that nothing will be done, or fear of retaliation or other consequences.
Housing discrimination today is far more complex than in past decades, when it was illegal to make statements like “We don’t rent to ” (fill in the blank with the protected class of choice.) It is inevitable that there will always be a few landlords and property managers who hide behind ‘handshake and smile’ discriminatory practices, finding subtle ways to avoid leasing to unliked classes of people. But in most cases, landlords and property managers who find themselves responding to complaints of discriminatory practices may very well be violating the law unwittingly.
For example, a fairly common practice that Colorado officials recently cited as discriminatory is that of offering discounts on application fees to married couples only. Landlords and property managers who engage in this practice are walking a thin line, and in some states, like in Colorado and 21 others and the District of Columbia are actually breaking the law since these states have added marital status as a protected class.
Landlords and property managers are cautioned to research their states for new additions to the protected classes as many states have added gender identity and sexual orientation, among others.
Not surprisingly, weight continues to come up as a potential addition to the list as well.
Another way landlords have been known to inadvertently discriminate against prospects is by placing restrictions on where children sleep. For example, a parent has one child but wants to rent a one bedroom apartment for self and child. Landlords who refuse to rent on this basis alone and who insist parent upgrade to two bedrooms is clearly violating the law. Unless there are city or local ordinances against such a practice, landlords should stay away from banning this or attempting to discourage the parent from this sort of arrangement. Similarly, landlords who think they have a say on children of different gender sharing a room has no legal right to interfere with a parent who wants such an arrangement.
Also, professional investigators are always on the lookout for the many subtle ways discrimination rears its ugly head such as in the form of linguistic, name or voice profiling
Linguistic profiling takes place when a prospects’ written or typed communication is judged and perceived to be something other than the landlord’s preference. For example, a prospect that sends an email with numerous misspellings and broken English is automatically rejected or discouraged from applying for a property based on the assumption he/she is from a different country.
Name profiling is judging a prospect based on their name (could be first or last) and deciding against renting to said person because of their perceived affiliation with a particular protected class.
Voice profiling is very similar to name profiling and is simply discriminating against someone who’s perceived to belong to a certain protected class based on the tone of his/her voice.
No matter the class or the means, discriminating against a housing prospect for any reason is taken very seriously and to that end, Fair Housing investigators have significantly stepped up their enforcement to ensure violators are dealt with immediately. In February 2013, HUD launched a mobile application for consumers who want to report an incident of housing discrimination or obtain more information via their smartphones.
Share your experiences with us. Have you ever been investigated for discriminatory practices? What are your thoughts on the newly added protected classes in some states such as marital status, sexual orientation and others? What newly protected classes has your state added?