Many first-time landlords already know that it's illegal to discriminate against rental applicants based on race or age -- but did you know that the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and its amendments in 1988 covers several other protected categories of people?

The Fair Housing Act covers your entire relationship from advertising to managing the rental, and prohibits discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, family status, disability or handicap, gender, or age. If you're not familiar with all the protected categories, it's easy to accidentally discriminate against potential renters, especially based on gender, family status, or disability.

1. Gender

It's easy to discriminate against renters based on their gender without realizing it. For example, if you refuse to show a female applicant a certain rental property because you don't think it's "safe enough," you're violating the law. Show all available properties to any potential renter who inquires about availability.

You may also violate the law in your advertising. If you advertise that the property is "great for a female student," you're discriminating against men. Keep your advertising very fact-based to eliminate the potential of accidental discrimination.

The exception to this portion of the statute is if you're renting a room with a shared living space, such as a living room and kitchen. If you're renting out a single room in your house, it's not discriminatory to choose to rent it to someone of the same gender. However, if you're renting out half of a duplex that does not share a common living area, you may not discriminate based on gender.

You also cannot ask for or offer inducements for sexual favors. It's best to avoid romantic relationships with renters, to avoid even the possible appearance of any impropriety.

Though it is not part of the federal law, several states and Washington D.C. add sexual orientation as a protected class. We recommend reading your state's statutes to ensure you don't violate state specific rules.

2. Family Status

It is illegal to discriminate against renters based on whether or not they have children; the Fair Housing Act also covers pregnant renters or those awaiting adoption. Discrimination includes both refusing to rent to families and treating families differently than you treat other tenants. You cannot charge higher security deposits, create lease restrictions, restrict children's access to common areas, or isolate families on certain floors or parts of a building.

However, as a landlord, you may follow reasonable occupancy limits. Your local laws cover occupancy rules such as limiting the number of people per bedroom or the minimum amount of square feet per person.

Here's something else to watch out for: You may also discover that your advertising unintentionally suggests discrimination. If you use language such as "Great for newlyweds!" or "Perfect for a young family," in an advertisement, you could be accused of discrimination. The solution to this is using only fact-based language in your advertising.

It's also easy to verbally discriminate based on familial status without realizing it. Avoid using this type of language:

  • You may fit in better where there are more children.
  • This house is best suited for adults.
  • I don't feel comfortable renting this house to a couple with three children.
  • My insurance doesn't cover renting to families.

3. Disability or Handicap

The Fair Housing Act also defines renters with a mental or physical impairment as protected from discrimination. In fact, the law requires that you make reasonable accommodations for someone with a handicap. (Those who have a disability in their past, or who are perceived by others to have a handicap, are also protected.)

A tenant with a disability must be permitted to make reasonable physical changes to the residence. Examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Installing visual alarms
  • Widening doorways
  • Installing ramps

For a house rental, the tenant must pay for the modifications himself, and the landlord can require the tenant to restore the home to its original condition before moving out. You may run afoul of this part of the law if you turn down a request such as installing a grab bar in the bathroom, allowing for a service animal, or refusing to rent based on a disability. (Landlords must also allow service animals, despite any pet rules for the rental.) A service animal must meet three tests to be protected by the Fair Housing Act: the person must have a disability, the animal must serve a function related to the disability, and the request to have the animal must be reasonable.

Violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 could result in civil fines and punitive damages, legal injunctions, and attorney costs. The best way to avoid committing accidental violations is to review applicable state and federal statutes before starting the process of renting out your home or apartment.

POSTED December 08 2014 9:46 AM

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