In the United States, we take it as a given that it's illegal for businesses to discriminate against certain groups of people. This understanding is supported by a long string of laws and court rulings, such as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, also known as the Fair Housing Act. This act protects tenants from unfair discrimination by landlords and real estate agents.
Laws and interpretations can change swiftly, and many states and municipalities may have laws in addition to the Fair Housing Act, such as those that add protected classes not covered in the federal law. If you have questions about the Fair Housing Act or any other law, it's best to consult a lawyer, but here is a quick overview.
The Civil Rights Act outlines a number of "protected classes" that cannot be discriminated against. These include race, color, religion and national origin. Families with children and disabled people were added in the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, and sex and gender (most courts have read this to include transgender) are protected since the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.
For the purposes of Title VIII, there are certain kinds of interactions between real estate professionals and clients that are legally protected.
You cannot refuse to sell or rent a property to clients based on their status in a protected class. Nor can you discriminate against persons in protected classes in any terms or contracts. You can't, for instance, write up rental contracts that charge more rent to people of a certain ethnic group, for any reason.
When advertising a property, you must not indicate any desire to favor any group over a protected class or to actively discriminate against a protected class. A line in a classified ad like "no families with children allowed" would be discriminatory and illegal; this is why many companies explicitly print a notice in advertisements saying that they do not discriminate against protected groups.
You also cannot coerce, threaten, or otherwise interfere with an individual's ability to exercise free housing rights in any way that would be discriminatory. An example would be threatening to evict a woman solely because of her gender.
Landlords don't have to provide housing to anybody who applies, of course. You can discriminate on the basis of income, credit history, pet ownership, and the tenant's ability to care for the property.
The Fair Housing Act is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Tenants and applicants who believe that their rights under Title VIII have been violated can submit a complaint to HUD, which will launch an investigation. Landlords and other real estate professionals are expected to comply with HUD's investigation, submitting all requested documents and statements, and failure to do so can result in further penalties.
If HUD's investigation determines that there's reasonable cause to believe that unfair discrimination has taken place, the matter goes to an administrative hearing, adjudicated by a judge. The judge can take a number of actions, including mandating that monetary compensation be paid directly to the victim, possibly including attorney's fees, issuing an injunction to rectify the situation, and/or paying the federal government a civil penalty of at least $16,000.
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