Landlords have many pitfalls to avoid. Tenants fall on hard times? You might stop seeing rent checks come in and have to pursue an eviction. Heating unit bites the dust? A major repair can put you in the negative on that property for months. Another major fear is tenant lawsuits. Even if you successfully litigate, being tied up in court is expensive in both money for lawyer’s fees and in time that could be spent elsewhere.

Federal Protections and Rental Advertisements
One major potential source of legal trouble is your rental advertisement. The best landlords are very careful in screening their tenants. They know how important it is to have a great tenant who will pay on time and who will take care of the property. The rental advertisement is one way to lay out expectations and filter out tenants who are not a good fit for your property.
Landlords have to be careful with these advertisements, though, as tenants and tenants’ rights groups screen them and will spot illegal components. As most landlords know, Federal law protects renters in different categories from housing discrimination:

  • Race or Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National Origin
  • Disability/handicap
  • Family status

States and cities often layer on additional protections. For example, in Maryland it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity ,and marital status. Refusing to rent to prospective tenants based on any of these categories is illegal and any hint of discriminatory intent in an advertisement can spell trouble.

Family Status Protections
The family status category often trips up landlords. Protections based on family status mean that landlords cannot refuse to rent based on the presence of children. For example, landlords cannot refuse to rent to a pregnant woman, a family with a child, or anyone who is trying to gain custody of a child. While you may fear that a child will add wear and tear to your house or apartment, turning a tenant away on those grounds is explicitly illegal.
In your rental ads, make sure you have no references to family status that could signal discriminatory intent. Stating that no children are allowed is blatantly illegal and invites a lawsuit. Other language that could be misread as discriminatory can be problematic and should be avoided. Examples include “perfect for working professionals” or “great for a single person.” These may seem innocent to you, but many others would disagree. Avoid them just in case.

Local Protections and Renting
Tenants do not just have Federal protections, but have state and local protections as well. Some cities have extensive protections for other groups who have been historically marginalized. In New York City, that includes age, marital status, gender (including gender identity), sexual orientation, occupation, and source of income. Landlords have to research the rules of their jurisdiction to ensure they know who is and is not protected.
For example, if your jurisdiction protects prospective tenants on the basis of source of income, then you cannot reject someone with a legal, verifiable income. That often includes Social Security, pensions, or veteran’s benefits. New York and many other states protect those who receive housing assistance, like Section 8 vouchers. Indicating a preference for income types is often illegal, so steer clear of phrases like “working families preferred.” Keep an eye out for area-specific resources to keep yourself out of the courthouse.

Resources to Protect Yourself
Avoiding a lawsuit will not always be possible, but with some research and some careful writing, your rental advertisements should be legally and ethically clean as a whistle. Check out these resources for additional tips.

  • The Equal Rights Center advocates on behalf of tenants. It is a great resource to make sure you are complying with the law.
  • This free legal chapter goes over the protected classes in detail, with examples of what is and is not allowed.

This memorandum from the Department of Housing and Urban Development clarifies some rules around real estate advertisements.

POSTED April 23 2015 9:04 AM

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