If you're looking to rent a home or an apartment in Virginia, two laws protect you against discrimination. The federal Fair Housing Act, also called the FHA, protects existing tenants and prospective tenants from certain discriminatory practices, and Virginia has its own fair housing law.
The Federal Fair Housing Act
The FHA protects tenants from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status, which means families with at least one child under the age of 18.
These are considered protected classes. Landlords cannot refuse to rent to anyone based on one or more of these factors. They cannot treat anyone among these protected classes any differently than other tenants.
The government publishes a list of disabilities recognized by the FHA, and housing cannot be denied on the basis of any of them. The disability doesn't have to be physical. It can be mental, emotional or an addiction issue. Even if you're not disabled, a landlord is breaking the law if he thinks you are for some reason and denies you housing on the basis of his belief. He can't ask you if you have a handicap or a disability.
It's Not Blanket Protection
Landlords can take action against tenants in these protected classes for reasons that apply to all tenants. For example, a disabled tenant can be evicted if he does not pay his rent because this rule would be enforced on everyone.
All tenants are expected to pay their rent on time, so this is not discrimination as long as the rule applies across the board.
The Virginia Fair Housing Law
In addition to these federally protected classes, Virginia also offers legal protection based on age discrimination. You cannot be discriminated against for "elderliness" if you're age 55 or older.
Under Virginia law, landlords must permit disabled tenants to make modifications to the premises at their own expense — such as by installing a wheelchair ramp. Virginia law further requires that all dwelling units and common use areas in multi-family buildings constructed after March 13, 1991 be wheelchair-accessible and disability-friendly.
Virginia landlords must bend some existing rules to accommodate a tenant's disability, such as by assigning him a parking space nearby to his door when other tenants don't enjoy the same perk.
Landlords are prohibited from retaliating against anyone who makes a complaint under the Fair Housing Law, and they may not threaten, intimidate or interfere with a tenant's enjoyment of the premises he's renting, regardless of whether the tenant is a member of a protected class.
Both federal law and Virginia's law cover not just landlords but real estate agents, banks, credit unions, mortgage lenders, appraisers and private homeowners — pretty much anyone involved in the sale or lease of property.
What to Do If You're Discriminated Against
Complaints about a landlord or other individual or entity can be made to the Virginia Fair Housing Board which administers, investigates and enforces the state's Fair Housing Law.