The U.S. federal government has declared that certain categories of people are protected from housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, or FHA. These "protected classes" cannot be discriminated against when renting or selling a unit or when posting a listing.
Not every class of people counts as a protected class. Many landlords are confused about who is considered protected under the FHA - especially since the categories in question, and interpretations of those categories, have varied over time. What follows is a breakdown of the protected classes included (or not included) under the FHA, but for specific rulings and up-to-date information, it's always best to consult a lawyer and your local laws.
Seven protected classes fall under the FHA's jurisdiction. The first two are race and color. "Color" refers specifically to the color of one's skin, whereas "race" refers to the categories most people in the United States are familiar with - Black or African American, White or Caucasian and so forth. Be aware that ethnicities like Hispanic, Latino/a, and Chicano/a are considered to be racial distinctions, and therefore are protected classes under the FHA.
Religion is the third protected class; you are forbidden from discriminating against someone's beliefs or religious practices, or lack thereof, when offering housing.
The fourth class, national origin, prohibits discriminating against someone because of where they come from.
The fifth class, sex, is traditionally interpreted to stop discrimination against men or women. Several court cases in the last ten to twenty years have explicitly ruled that the existence of this protected class prohibits discrimination against transgender and non-binary people.
Disability is the sixth class, and includes physical and mental disabilities. If your tenant is disabled, you're expected to make reasonable accommodations for them. Depending on their situation, this may include things like allowing the tenant a service animal without charging a pet fee, or installing reasonable accommodations like wheelchair ramps.
The seventh class is familial status. You cannot refuse to rent from someone, for instance, solely because they have children or are planning to do so (although special provisions exist for housing for senior citizens).
Who Isn't Protected?
Many classes may be protected on a state or local level, but may not enjoy simultaneous protection on the federal level. As of this writing, sexual orientation (i.e., gay, straight, bisexual and so forth) is not a protected class under the FHA. The same goes for source of income or marital status, though you will want to check with your local laws to make sure that they do not name further classes that may not be protected federally, but are protected on the local level.
Protected Classes in Action
It is, of course, completely legal to not rent to someone who's in a protected class, but you need to be sure that you're not making this decision because of their status in that protected class. If, for instance, you learn that a potential tenant is disabled, but they also have several evictions on their record, you can decide to not rent to them - assuming, of course, that you would reasonably make the same decision for another tenant who did not fall into a protected class.
The Fair Housing Act was a landmark piece of legislation for protecting several disenfranchised groups from discrimination at the hands of landlords, property management companies, homeowners and mortgage companies. While the penalty for violating the FHA may vary, violations typically incur fines and/or jail time. For your safety, and the well-being of your tenants, it's important to know what protected class fall under the FHA's jurisdiction and to stay abreast of any changes in interpretation.
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