How to Avoid Illegal Steering When Looking for an Apartment

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Short of turning away prospective tenants based on a discriminatory reason, some landlords, brokers, and other housing professionals practice a more subtle form of discrimination known as "steering." This term refers to when someone tries to limit a renter's housing choices by guiding or encouraging the person to look elsewhere, based on a protected characteristic.

It's disappointing enough when your housing choices are limited by low turnover and vacancy rates, or by a slim supply of apartments in your area. But apartment hunters who experience illegal steering face additional hurdles in the form of unfair, artificial restrictions.

How to Identify Illegal Steering

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) fair housing regulations identify four main types of illegal steering practices. Before you begin your apartment search, it's smart to be familiar with steering so you can spot it and possibly take action.

Your landlord or other housing professional may be engaged in illegal steering by doing any of the following:

  • Discouraging you from renting at a building. Rather than saying "We don't rent to black people" or "No families allowed," some landlords claim to have nondiscriminatory policies but indirectly try to encourage prospective tenants to look elsewhere based on discriminatory reasons. Of course, if you mentioned that you need to rent an apartment in a building that's close to public transportation, it's valid for a landlord to point out that her building isn't located near public transportation and suggest you might want to look elsewhere. But if you start to hear a landlord or broker make arguments for why you shouldn't consider a building when everything about it seems fine to you, you should be suspicious that they're trying to steer you away from the building for a discriminatory reason.
  • Discouraging you from renting by exaggerating drawbacks or failing to inform you about desirable features of the rental or neighborhood. Instead of trying to show you why you should be interested in their building, some landlords may stress the negatives, in the hope that it might get you discouraged. Even less directly, a landlord may simply not bother pointing out the pros of living in the building or even in the neighborhood, for that matter. For example, if a building has amenities such as a swimming pool, roof deck, or fitness center and your landlord or broker isn't mentioning them, consider it a red flag that you're being steered.
  • Indicating that you wouldn't be comfortable or compatible with other tenants. Another steering tactic could be summarized as "It's not the building, it's the tenants." Under this scenario, a landlord will try to discourage you from renting at the building because he believes you wouldn't be a good fit with the other tenants. If you're in this situation, press the landlord or broker to tell you why he thinks you would have problems with the tenants.
    The reason could be valid. For example, you may have told a landlord or broker you're looking for peace and quiet and he might honestly let you know that many tenants like to hold loud parties or that the walls are thin and he's gotten several complaints about noise. (Even so, it's up to you whether you want to consider renting in that building.) But if you hear a landlord say, "Well, I don't think the other tenants will like the fact you have kids," then you know this is illegal steering, in this case, based on familial status.
  • Trying to assign you to a certain floor or section of the building. This type of steering practice is about segregation. In this scenario, a landlord doesn't mind renting to certain types of people—as long as those people rent apartments in a certain part of the building. Although this is a less obvious form of discrimination, this type of steering practice often leads to flat-out discrimination. For instance, if you're a Muslim and there are no more vacancies available in the "Muslim part" of a building, it means the landlord will (under a discriminatory policy) turn you away on account of your religion—even though there may be vacancies in the building. Another example is a landlord who tries to put tenants with disabilities in a certain area of a complex, in an attempt to minimize their visibility to other tenants and their guests.