Housing Discrimination: What You Can Do if You Think You’re a Victim

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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.
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • 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.

9 Responses to “Housing Discrimination: What You Can Do if You Think You’re a Victim”

  1. October 08, 2007 at 3:16 pm, Guest said:

    Very balanced article…
    I have been in the apartment industry for almost a decade, and was frankly nervous when I first saw the title of this blog. However, as I read it I saw that the author truly made an effort to keep it fair and unbiased. It is unfortunate that housing discrimination still exists, and I firmly believe it is a select few (usually uninformed) that still do it. Perhaps, if they read this it will enlighten them. Perhaps another important tidbit is that if a landlord, leasing agent, etc tells you they can’t answer demographic questions (i.e. “Do you have children here? Do you have many families”) they are telling the truth when they say they can’t answer them. They aren’t avoiding the questions, and are simply bound by law not to answer them.


  2. October 11, 2007 at 11:50 pm, Guest said:

    I used to work in the property management industry for five years, and many prospective renters tried to coax this out of me as a maintenance tech. One of the responses was to say “I’ll just hang around to see what kind of tenants you have.” This was something I highly discouraged.
    Does this mean that I agree with fair-housing entirely? No and not because I don’t like children or people of other races. It’s because of the way that these laws can be interpreted by anyone that feels they’ve been discriminated against. The other is the awards that these people have been given to make an example of the perpetrators. The third and final reason why I disagree with the laws is because of the way that they are interpreted, noisy and disruptive tenants can just play the race card when things don’t go their way. Tenants that run afoul of other rules to keep the property clean and safe also play the race card and yell “unfair!”
    We do need to insure good housing for those that can afford it, but I’m not so sure we need such draconian laws to secure these “rights”. After all, we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To this day, not everyone can own a home or even rent an apartment(look at the abject poverty in the richest country in the world, and the homeless). Housing is not a right in this country, but the laws have been hijacked to make it a right for protected classes.


  3. February 17, 2008 at 3:39 pm, Guest said:

    three day eviction on paper


  4. August 20, 2008 at 10:27 pm, Guest said:

    What about when your landlord treats you in a belittling, bullying manner (an AA female) and treats your white male husband in a respective manner and responds better to his calls and complaints?


  5. August 22, 2008 at 12:11 pm, Guest said:

    I recently called about renting a duplex and the landlady asked me how many would be living there. I said 4, she said two kids and two adults? and I replied, no 1 adult and 3 kids. She then said “oh you’re a single mother?, the house’s septic tank would not support 3 children” and hung up on me.
    I can’t help but feel that if I had said 5 people/3 being children and a married couple, she would have been happy to rent to me.


  6. October 09, 2008 at 7:03 am, Guest said:

    Mesquite, TX and several other communities are now preventing people to rent if they have felony convictions or are “accused” of any crime. This seems illegal to discriminate against someone who has not been convicted yet.

    The US Constitution ensures that we are innocent until proven guilty (this ‘right’ has been defaced and mocked by our legal system). Yet, I have a friend who was denied rental because she had a pending court case. The DA dropped the felony charges and changed the charges to a misdemeanor to which she plead guilty. Yet, she is still being refused housing because she has a “criminal record”. The contract clearly states “felony” – not “misdemeanor” or “criminal”. She is clearly discriminated against. Yet, the laws do not protect her situation as “discrimination” because it does not involve gender, race, age, family status or disability.

    What gives? America has been sucked down the tubes. You don’t have to look any further than Wall Street to realize how arrogant America has become. I am purely ashamed of our behavior.


  7. May 24, 2009 at 12:15 pm, Me said:

    I’m always discriminated against because of my ‘disability’. Most ‘landlords’ don’t want to deal, and those that do always manage to create an atmosphere of intimidation and humiliation and manage to find ways to prevent me from integrating naturally into a new setting-they usually pass a word or two around to other parties ahead of my arrival, so I always end up going into a situation at a distinct disadvantage, which only compounds the handicaps that I seek to overcome.

    That’s been my experience for quite a few years now, especially since I began living on disability income only. One potential landlord once offered me a ride in his car to see an apartment that his company had listed for rent, since I informed him that I didn’t have a car. We got in his car and as he was pulling out of the parking lot he asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was on disability. He immediately stopped the car and ordered me to get out. Exasperated, I attempted to engage him in further conversation and he only repeated his order more forcefully. He knew nothing else at all about me or my situation other than this, we had only met minutes prior.

    I sincerely believe that, at some point, I will be forced into homelessness due to this type of pervasive discrimination.


  8. March 11, 2011 at 6:37 pm, Guest said:

    Finding housing has been a constant battle for my family for over a year and a half. That is how long my family of 3 has been homeless. If our problem was strictly financial, we might’ve gotten into a government subsidized unit by now. We have maintained a good income from working. We are professional and respectful, we dress well. Each and every time we find an apartment we are interrested in, there is an issue with the application. The first time, they claimed to have rented the unit before the application was recieved(2 hours after seeing the unit), but it turned up reposted on craigslist that night. The second time, the man told my husband he had got our fax and he’d give us a call back. I called him the next day, he said it was rented and he never got the application.(He then admited he was lying and said, “but I’m not discriminating!” I had never said anything about discriminating) other times they rush us through a showing and claim to be out of applications. (say they will get one to us but dont ask for contact info. The best is when they talk the place up on the phone and then tell us everything wrong and unappealing about it when we go to look at it. I can only speculate as to their reasoning but I suspect it is often racial. I am, for-the-most-part, White but my husband is black, our son is biracial. My husband is of Caribean decent and his name(and my first name) is French. His name and voice “sound white” on the phone but when we meet potential landlords they seem instantly suprised. I can’t help but wonder if it would be easier if we were both black. I do know that sometimes it is because we have a small child.


  9. August 05, 2012 at 9:30 am, H said:

    When you published about the large breed dog, THAT angered me. And what YOU said was borderline discriminatory. I am in a battle with the HOA, HUD and FHA about the fact that my doctor ordered me a large breed dog for my disability. Now while this “vicious breed list exists” it’s is idiot dolts like that writer and yourself that perpetrate such nonsense. AND are you aware, that a Lab breed is more prevalent to bite than most people would lend to believe? Just because a dog has a “cute” face does NOT make it any less dangerous. There is no such thing as a dangerous dog, just dangerous owners who neglect and betray the beautiful creatures from the time they are puppies. So stop making such dumba$$ comments.


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