The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was enacted to protect buyers and renters from discrimination. The primary prohibition makes it illegal to refuse to rent or sell to a person because of their inclusion in a protected class. Federally protected classes include race, religion, sex, color, national origin, age, and disability. The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that all Houston Landlords are bound by.
What liability does the Fair Housing Act give landlords?
Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord (and their agents) are liable for any form of discrimination they intentionally or unintentionally engage in toward tenants or potential tenants. The only people who aren’t likely to be held responsible for discrimination are employees high up on the chain of command who would have no way of knowing about the discrimination.
For examples of what housing discrimination looks like, check out these examples from HUD’s website.
Exceptions to the Fair Housing Act
Although it’s a federal law, there are four common exemptions to the FHA:
- A landlord who rents a single-family home without using a real estate agent or any form of advertising and doesn’t own more than three homes.
- A landlord who lives with one or more tenants in the same house.
- Qualified senior housing.
- Housing operated by religious or private organizations, provided the organization meets certain requirements.
These exemptions don’t apply federally, however. That means states can enact their own laws that don’t allow for any exceptions to the FHA. For example, California has strict state-level discrimination laws that don’t allow single-family homes to be exempted from the FHA.
An example of how states can enact laws tougher than federal law is California. In CA, housing is governed by two main laws that are more restrictive than the FHA: the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh Act). Together, these two laws expand the scope of protection to include the following classes:
- Source of income
- Gender identity
- Gender expression
- Sexual orientation
- Marital status
- Genetic information
- Medical condition
- Primary language
- Immigration status
As you can see, the list of protected classes in California is extensive, and several major CA cities have expanded on these extended protected classes.
Texas housing laws aren’t as strict as California housing laws, but it’s always a good idea to avoid discriminating against people for any reason that doesn’t affect their ability to be a good tenant. For example, there’s no reason to discriminate based on a person’s ancestry. Ancestry has no bearing on whether or not a person will be a good tenant. While it’s not explicitly illegal to discriminate based on ancestry in Texas, it’s not right. Besides, a court might consider ancestral discrimination a form of racial discrimination. It’s not worth it.
What about familial status discrimination in Texas?
Familial status has to do with families with children. Generally speaking, familial status protection applies to pregnant women and families with minor children and their legal guardians or custodians. A Texas landlord may not discriminate against a tenant because they have kids. Unfortunately, many landlords do discriminate against applicants with children.
Just like the federal Fair Housing Act, the Texas Fair Housing Act applies to the sale and rental of housing as well as mortgage lending, and prohibits discrimination based on familial status. Unless a building or community officially qualifies as senior housing, a Texas landlord may not discriminate against someone for familial status.
Landlords can be held liable for tenant-on-tenant discrimination
A 2018 court case (Wetzel v. Glen St. Andrew Living Community, LLC) held a landlord responsible for tenant-on-tenant harassment that was based on a protected class.
To some people’s surprise, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted the Fair Housing Act broadly, ruling that a landlord is liable for discrimination when they have actual notice of tenant-on-tenant harassment based on a tenant’s protected class, yet doesn’t take reasonable steps to stop the harassment.
In the case of Wetzel v. Glen St. Andrew Living Community, an older woman was repeatedly harassed and abused by residents in her new community for being a lesbian. She asked the landlord for help, but the landlord refused to take measures to stop the harassment. At that point, the landlord discriminated against Wetzel by limiting her use of facilities and began the process to evict her.
The court determined that had the landlord done nothing but listen to the tenant’s complaints, the court’s holding might have been more limited. However, the landlord intentionally engaged in discriminatory acts that were clearly retaliation for complaining, so the landlord was held liable for discrimination.
Landlords can’t afford to tolerate discrimination
If you have multiple tenants that live in the same house or building, it’s your responsibility to take tenant complaints of discrimination seriously. Don’t leave your tenants high and dry by ignoring their complaints or you could find yourself in the middle of a lawsuit.
If your tenants frequently complain about another tenant who constantly disrupts the peace, you should check into it and do something about it. You have a moral obligation to do your best to create a community where your tenants feel welcome and safe. Knowingly allowing abuse to occur between your tenants is never acceptable.
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