How Does the FHA Protect Against Housing Discrimination?

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In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination based on five main categories: race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. These civil rights and US labor anti-discrimination laws primarily enforced constitutional rights for voters and prohibited racial segregation in schools, places of employment, and public facilities like hotels, restaurants, theaters, and retail stores.

Among its provisions was the portion known as Title VIII, better known as the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA was enacted to protect people against any kind of discrimination when renting an apartment, buying a home, or obtaining financing for a home loan.

Protected Classes

Thomson Reuters Practical Law defines a protected class as a group of people with a common characteristic who are legally protected from discrimination on the basis of that characteristic. Protected classes are created by both federal and state law.

The original FHA had only five protected classes—race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. An amendment in 1988, however, added disability and familial status to the protected classes. Within the FHA, the federal government now defines seven "protected classes" for the types of discrimination forbidden:

  • Race: People cannot be treated unfavorably due to personal characteristics like hair texture, skin color/complexion, and facial features.
  • Color: While race and color overlap, they're not synonymous. Color discrimination may occur in people of various races or ethnicity and includes pigmentation, complexion, skin shade, tone, lightness, darkness, and color characteristic.
  • Religion: The law protects people who belong to all religious groups, as well as those who have other ethical or moral beliefs.
  • National origin: Those who are from another country or another part of the world are protected under this law. Ethnicity, accent, or the appearance of being of a certain ethnic background is also covered.
  • Sex: This class protects discrimination based on sex. It also protects against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Protection originally only covered sex-based discrimination, but now covers homophobic and transphobic discrimination. It also covers discrimination when people are perceived to hold the above marginalized identities.
  • Disability: When you're looking for a rental, landlords aren't allowed to ask whether you have a disability or illness (nor can they ask to see your medical records). This includes physical or mental disability. Additionally, landlords may have to provide you with accommodations, at the landlord's expense, and may have to allow you to make some modifications at your own cost.
  • Familial status: This term refers to the presence of at least one child under 18 years old. It also protects prospects and tenants who are pregnant or in the process of child adoption.

FHA Discrimination

The personal characteristics defined by classes cannot be the basis of discrimination by landlords, home-sellers, or lenders. It is important to note that to be guilty of such discrimination, it must be shown that one of these characteristics is the reason for discrimination. The original FHA does not forbid all forms of discrimination. It is possible, for example, for a landlord to discriminate on the basis of income, and nothing in the FHA makes such discrimination illegal. 

Individual states and communities, however, may enact their own laws that expand on the protections of the FHA. There are some state laws that provide additional protection such as creed, age, ancestry, veteran status, genetic information, and citizenship.

Housing Discrimination Laws: Changes and Additions

In 1988, Title VIII was amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act, which:

  • Expanded the coverage of the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination based on disability or on familial status. This Amendments Act also allowed for the creation of designated senior citizen housing communities. 
  • Established new administrative enforcement mechanisms with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attorneys to bring actions before administrative law judges on behalf of victims of housing discrimination.
  • Revised and expanded Justice Department jurisdiction to bring suit on behalf of victims in federal district courts.

In 1995, the Housing for Older Persons Act of (HOPA) made it legal to enact some forms of discrimination for housing communities defined as 55 and older. Such communities are allowed to not rent to families who don't have any residents falling into the senior citizen definition. This was intended to protect housing availability for senior citizens. All other protected classes still enjoy the same protections in officially designated 55 and older or 62 and older living communities. 

Violation of Rights

If you think your rights under the FHA have been violated, obtain a copy of the Housing Discrimination Complaint Form and fill it out online. You can also file a complaint by writing to a HUD near you up to one year after the alleged violation.

If you are disabled, the HUD will provide you with a toll-free TTY phone for the hearing impaired: 1-800-927-9275. There are also interpreters, tapes and braille materials, and assistance in reading and completing forms.

Provide the HUD with:

  • Your name and address.
  • The name and address of the person your complaint is against (the respondent).
  • The address or other identification of the housing involved.
  • A short description of the alleged violation (the event that caused you to believe your rights were violated).
  • The date(s) of the alleged violation.