Article Courtesy of Forbes Advisor
By Cathy Bond + Rachel Witkowski
Published May 3, 2021
Everyone deserves a stable, affordable place to live. But the
unfortunate truth is that discrimination in housing has prevented some
vulnerable groups from achieving this cornerstone of the American Dream.
The good news is that there are laws in place to protect people from being
discriminated against when securing housing. One of the most important is the
Fair Housing Act (FHA). Here’s what the FHA covers and how you can protect
yourself from discriminatory practices.
What Is the Fair Housing Act of 1968?
The Fair Housing Act is a critical set of guidelines that prevent prospective
homeowners and renters from discrimination through the sale, rental agreement or
financing of their home.
The act was signed into law by President Lydon Johnson in 1968 after several
years of policymakers struggling to push it through until the assassination of
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prompted congressional action.
Today, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees and
enforces the Fair Housing Act. It prohibits discrimination in housing based on:
race or color, national origin, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and
gender identity, per a new executive order), familial status and disabilty.
Anyone who attempts to rent, buy or sell a home, take out a mortgage or obtain
housing assistance, is protected. The act also applies to most housing types,
with a few exceptions.
How the Fair Housing Act Protects Against Housing Discrimination
Housing is a broad term. So who, exactly, is prohibited from engaging in
The FHA outlaws discrimination by:
Property owners and managers
Real estate agents
Mortgage lenders and brokers
Anyone else who impacts housing opportunities
Essentially, any person or entity that’s involved in the process of securing
housing is required to follow FHA guidelines. If someone believes they were
discriminated against, they can contact HUD, which they will then investigate.
Examples of Housing Discrimination
Discrimination can occur in many ways and to different classes of people. Here
are a few examples:
Selling or renting. It’s illegal to refuse a home sale or
rental to someone based on race, sex or any of the other factors outlined in
the FHA. That includes falsely stating that a home is no longer on the
market when it is, or providing different terms or facilities to one person
over another. It’s also against the law to persuade homeowners to sell or
rent their property based on the fact that people of a particular race or
other protected class are moving into the neighborhood, intending to earn a
Mortgage lending. Lenders can also discriminate against
mortgage applicants if the lender refuses to provide information about a
loan, rejected the applicant entirely or imposed different terms and
conditions (interest rates, fees, etc.) based on the applicant’s race,
color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin.
Similar discrimination can occur during the appraisal process.
Homeowners insurance. If an insurance company refuses to
provide homeowners insurance to an owner or occupant of a dwelling because
of their race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national
origin, it’s considered discrimination. It’s also discrimination to offer
different terms or conditions, or provide limited or information about an
insurance product based on those same factors.
Accommodating disabilities. People who have mental or
physical disabilities (such as mobility impairment or chronic mental
illness) that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” are
entitled to certain housing accommodations. If reasonable accommodations
aren’t allowed even at your own expense, it may be considered
discrimination. For example, a building that usually doesn’t permit tenants
to have pets would need to allow a visually impaired tenant to keep a guide
Advertising. When advertising the sale or rental
availability of a dwelling, any language published that indicates preference
or limitations based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial
status or national origin is discrimination. This also applies to
advertising for single-family and owner-occupied housing, which is otherwise
exempt from the FHA.
Fair Housing Act Exemptions
Though the Fair Housing Act applies to most situations, there are some
For example, if a dwelling has four or fewer units and the owner lives in one of
them, they are exempt from the FHA. However, they would not be exempt under the
Pennsylvania Human Relations Act unless the dwelling contained only two units
and one was owner-occupied.
Additionally, any single-family housing that’s sold or rented without the use of
a broker is exempt from the FHA, as long as the owner is a private individual
who doesn’t own more than three such homes at one time. Again, they would not be
exempt in the state of Pennsylvania due to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Housing communities for the elderly are also exempt from the FHA in most cases.
In order to not violate the family status provision, it must meet one of several
conditions. For instance, HUD must have determined that it’s specifically
designed for and occupied by elderly occupants under a federal, state or local
government program. Alternatively, it can be 100% occupied by people age 62 or
Another option is that the community houses at least one person age 55 or older
in at least 80% of the occupied units. The property must also have a policy
demonstrating that the intent of the community is to house people age 55 or
Finally, religious organizations and private clubs are allowed to give
preference to members as long as they don’t discriminate in their membership.
How Fair Housing Laws Are Enforced
The HUD is the federal agency in charge of implementing and enforcing the Fair
Housing Act. It does so through its Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity
(FHEO), which is headquartered in Washington, with 10 regional offices across
the U.S. The purpose of these offices is to enforce FHA compliance, administer
fair housing programs and educate consumers.
The FHEO primarily enforces fair housing programs by funding third-party
organizations. For instance, the Fair Housing Initiatives Program provides
grants to private organizations that investigate complaints, and even place
people undercover to find FHA violations.
How to Protect Yourself Against Fair Housing Violations
If you believe your rights were violated under the Fair Housing Act, it’s
important to file a complaint right away. HUD will investigate claims made
within one year of the violation.
When filing a complaint, be prepared to provide the following information:
Your name and address
Name and address of the person or company your complaint
is against (also known as the respondent)
Address or other identification of the housing involved
The date and a brief description of the incident that led
to your rights being violated
You can file a complaint with the FHEO online, using the HUD Form 903. You can
also download this form and email it to your local FHEO office. You can also
mail a letter or call an office directly.
Once your complaint is received and accepted, HUD will notify you in writing. It
will also notify the respondent that you filed a complaint and give them some
time to submit a written response. The FHEO will investigate your complaint and
decide whether or not there is reasonable cause to believe that the respondent
violated the FHA. Additionally, HUD will offer you and the respondent the
opportunity to voluntarily resolve the complaint with a Conciliation Agreement.
If it’s determined there was a rights violation and you don’t come to an
agreement with the respondent, you may need to consult with a lawyer and
determine the next steps.