David, a Mexican-American, was looking for an affordable one-bedroom apartment in the Washington, D.C. area. After spotting an ad in the local paper, he called the landlord who described what sounded like the perfect apartment over the phone. But when David showed up to meet the landlord and tour the apartment, he was told it was no longer available. David suspects that the landlord would rather not rent to him because of his race.
Karen decided to search for a new two-bedroom rental for herself, husband, and young daughter on Craigslist. She found a listing for an affordable unit in a nice neighborhood in San Francisco and was about to call when she saw the note at the bottom of the ad: “No kids.”
Ahmed is a permanent resident of the United States, but spent most of his life in Pakistan. He speaks perfect English, but still has a strong accent. He wanted a unit in a mid-sized luxury complex in Manhattan where he knew there were a few vacancies. He called the rental office and left a message but never heard back. He made a follow-up call a week later; still nothing. He wonders whether his accent and Middle-Eastern sounding name are the reason behind the rental office’s lack of response.
These three people all have something in common: they may have been victims of housing discrimination.
What is housing discrimination?
Housing discrimination is the refusal to rent, sell, or negotiate housing based on any of the following factors:
- Race, color or ethnicity
- National origin
- Family status, which includes families where parents or guardians have children under 18. Apartments or complexes that qualify as housing for older people may be exempt from this aspect of fair housing law.
- Disability, including a tenant’s right to have a seeing-eye dog, even if pets are prohibited in the building. Landlords must also allow disabled tenants make modifications to their apartments (at the tenant’s expense) that are necessary for their use of the apartment. Landlords can ask tenants to return the apartment to its original state upon move out.
Laws also prohibit landlords from setting different terms or conditions or providing different housing services or facilities based on any of the factors listed above. Violators can face stiff penalties if they are found to be in violation of fair housing laws.
What can you do about it?
If you suspect that you’ve been a victim of renter discrimination, don’t be passive. There are many agencies, organizations and sources of information available to help you, but you’ll have to put in some work. Here are some steps to take:
1. Educate yourself. Make sure you understand both federal law and the housing laws that govern your state. You can start at ApartmentRatings.com for more information about federal law. Visit the US Department of Housing and Urban Development site for information about laws that apply in your state.
2. Document the evidence. Pursuing a successful claim against and landlord or agency requires clear evidence that you have been treated unfairly. Make a note of every conversation you have, including the date and the time. Save any emails you send and send letters by certified mail.
3. Perform a test. In the case of David, the Mexican-American renter profiled above, there’s a chance that the landlord in question was being honest. Perhaps the apartment has was interested in had just been rented. But how to tell? If David’s white friend had called that same landlord and the apartment had been available, this would provide more compelling evidence of the landlord’s discrimination.
4. Contact the appropriate agency. Many agencies and organizations will help you pursue your claims against a landlord or rental agency. Places to start include the US Department of Housing and Urban Development site where you can file an official complaint online, the National Fair Housing Alliance for a list of organizations in your area that will help you pursue your claim, or www.fairhousinglaw.org, which provides a wealth of information about resources and contact info for helpful agencies. The appropriate agency will allow you to pursue your claim without having to hire an attorney. They can also help you collect damages. Hiring a private attorney is an option, but it should be a last resort if the government agencies can’t help you.
It may be tempting to avoid the often drawn-out process of proving discrimination and simply moving on to another apartment. But if a landlord’s discriminatory policies are hurting you and your family, they are probably hurting others as well. Your actions and diligence will help prevent landlords and rental agencies from promoting segregation and discrimination in the future.
Have you ever been the victim of discrimination from a landlord, real estate agent or rental agency? What did you do and what was the outcome? Share your experiences in our comments section.