How to Pursue a Fair Housing Claim Against Your Landlord

Action to Take if You Face Housing Discrimination

Filling out some forms
PeopleImages / Getty Images

Has your landlord, property manager, broker, or other housing professional engaged in discriminatory conduct? If so, you may be able to pursue a claim under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal law that protects renters against housing discrimination.

The law lets you pursue a claim by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a route which will save you time and money as well as the need to hire an attorney.

If you decide to proceed with filing a complaint with HUD, there are several steps to the process.

File a Complaint

You can file a fair housing complaint by completing HUD's Form 903 Online Complaint or using its smartphone app. If you prefer, you can print the form to complete by hand, and then mail it to HUD at the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Room 5204, 451 Seventh St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20410-2000 or by calling HUD's "Fair Housing Hotline" at 1-800-669-9777. Alternatively, you can send a letter to your regional fair housing office with information about your complaint.

Talk to a HUD Specialist

After you lodge a complaint, you should expect to hear shortly from a HUD intake specialist, who will ask you to elaborate on the discrimination you alleged in your complaint. HUD will use this information to determine whether it can pursue your case. (For example, if you complain that your landlord ignores his duty to make repairs, that is not a fair housing claim even though it may be a lease violation. But if you believe your landlord ignored your request for repairs because of your race, religion, or another protected characteristic, then HUD would have the authority to pursue your complaint.)

Sign a Formal Complaint

If HUD takes your case, you will receive a formal complaint in the mail with instructions. Read it over carefully and, if it is correct, sign it and return it to HUD at the address provided. Do not sign the formal complaint and then ask questions about it later. If you believe parts of it are incorrect or you have any questions, contact HUD for clarification.

Within 10 days of getting your signed complaint, HUD will get the ball rolling by sending the landlord a notice along with a copy of the complaint. You will also get a copy, along with an acknowledgment letter. Your landlord then has 10 days to submit a response to HUD. In most cases, the landlord will deny any liability for the housing discrimination you allege in the complaint.

Cooperate with HUD's Investigation

Expect HUD to run its investigation. This may include interviewing your landlord and others, such as a neighbor who claims to have witnessed the alleged discrimination. HUD will ask your landlord for relevant documents, such as an occupancy policy or internal memos. You need to be available to be interviewed and to provide any cooperation HUD may need with its investigation.

Conciliation

HUD is now required to get you and your landlord to try to reach a conciliation or settlement. If you can settle, HUD will prepare a conciliation agreement for you and your landlord to sign. Make sure you read it carefully and that it reflects what you had agreed. If you have any questions, ask HUD.

If you and your landlord sign a conciliation agreement but, down the road, your landlord does not live up to his end, you should let your contact at HUD know immediately. HUD may be able to take certain action against the landlord on your behalf to enforce the agreement.

HUD's Determination

If you receive a "determination of reasonable cause," this means HUD will formally charge your landlord with violating the Fair Housing Act. If HUD finds there is no reasonable cause to believe that your landlord has violated the law, HUD will issue a determination of "no reasonable cause" and close the case. If you disagree with the decision, ask HUD about filing an appeal.

Prepare for a Hearing

Following a determination of reasonable cause, HUD will send you a copy of its "charge." An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will then hear your case, where you will be represented by a HUD attorney. The judge can award a civil penalty of up to $16,000 per violation for first-time offenders, plus actual damages, attorneys' fees, and other relief.

You may instead elect, within 20 days of receiving the charge, to have the Department of Justice (DOJ) bring an action on your behalf in federal court, where you can be awarded actual and punitive damages as well as attorneys' fees.

If your case makes it to the final step and you disagree with the outcome, ask HUD (or the DOJ, if applicable) about filing an appeal.