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Deciding on a Tenant

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A landlord may have some basic requirements when she decides whether to accept or reject a prospective tenant's application. Typically, landlords set aside applicants with poor references or a credit report that shows a pattern of late bill payments or previous evictions. Landlords are also wary of tenants who do not have a bank account and plan to pay their rent in cash; this could be an indication of illegal activity.

Discrimination and the Fair Housing Act

It is illegal to discriminate against prospective tenants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces federal laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination in buying, selling and renting housing properties. The Fair Housing Act prohibits any kind of discrimination in renting based on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion or disability. If you own more than three rental units or use a leasing agent, you must comply with federal laws prohibiting discrimination in housing. Additionally, many cities have passed their own antidiscrimination ordinances with which you will have to comply. For example, in some locations, discrimination is prohibited on the basis of sexual orientation, even though there is no such prohibition in federal civil rights laws.

Landlords cannot reject an applicant because there will be children under 18 years of age in the household. The Fair Housing Act requires that children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women and individuals with custody of children under the age of 18 may not be denied housing.

However, properties that meet the definition of senior housing can deny housing to families with children. This is because senior housing is exempt from age discrimination prohibitions. These properties can also deny housing to people over 40 years of age who would normally be protected under age discrimination laws where the property:

  • is occupied solely by persons who are 62 or older;
  • houses at least one person who is 55 or older in at least 80 percent of the occupied units; and
  • is specifically designed for and occupied by elderly persons under a federal, state or local government program.

TIP: If you are a landlord, regardless of whether you are regularly renting properties, keep organized files on each applicant. If a complaint is ever filed against you, the agency investigating the claim will ask about the basis for rejecting an applicant. You must be able to show that the applicant was rejected for a nondiscriminatory reason, such as a poor credit rating. Always avoid making personal remarks about any of your applicants in your notes.

My mother's large home has been divided into four separate apartments. Does she have to rent to anyone who applies?

No, as long as your mother continues to live in the house, she can refuse to rent to whomever she chooses. The Fair Housing Act does not apply to owner-occupied buildings with four or less units.

I own several duplexes and have instructed my rental agents to give people of my religion a rent reduction. Am I discriminating?

Yes. The Fair Housing Act prohibits a landlord from offering different rental terms or deals to prospective tenants based on their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, handicap and/or familial status.

My brother just got out of a drug rehabilitation treatment center and apartment managers do not want to rent to him. Is this illegal discrimination?

No. The Fair Housing Act does not prohibit a landlord from refusing to rent to a tenant who she believes would pose a threat to other tenants because of illegal drug abuse or severe mental illness.

Can a landlord refuse to rent to a gay couple?

Yes, unless the rental property is in certain states and cities that prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation. Federal law and the Fair Housing Act do not protect against discrimination based on a tenant's sexual orientation.

Sidebar: States with laws prohibiting discrimination against gay tenants include California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. Cities with local antidiscrimination laws include Atlanta, Miami and San Francisco, among others. A more comprehensive city list is available here.

Can a landlord refuse to rent to unmarried couple?

Yes, unless the state or city where the property is located prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status.

My husband has AIDS, and the manager of an apartment complex we want to live in is reluctant to rent to us. Can she refuse to rent an apartment to us?

Not on the basis of your husband's illness. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on disability (meaning those individuals with mental or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities). Because AIDS affects the major life activities of your husband, he is considered disabled under the Fair Housing Act. Remind the apartment manager that your husband has the same status as a blind or deaf person and she cannot refuse to rent to you on the basis of his illness.

Can a landlord require me to prove that I am a U.S. citizen before he rents to me?

Yes. The FHA does not prohibit discrimination based solely on a person's citizenship status. For example, the landlord has a right to know if your visa (allowing you to study in the United States) is going to expire soon, which could result in you leaving before the end of the lease.

Sidebar: The landlord requesting citizenship information from prospective tenants must request the information from all applicants. He cannot discriminate by requesting documentation only from certain applicants.

I am a single mother with two small children. A landlord recently told me that the only vacant apartment had been rented when in fact it was available. Have I been discriminated against?

Yes. The landlord violated the Fair Housing Act by claiming that the apartment in question had already been rented when it had not. Making a false statement that housing is unavailable for viewing, rental or sale based on familial status is prohibited.

We have signed a lease for an apartment by the pool, but the landlord now wants to put us in a part of the complex where most of the families with children are living. Is this legal?

No. The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from providing alternative or different housing facilities or services to specific groups or individuals based their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, handicap and/or familial status. Your landlord is violating the law by attempting to force you to live in a certain section of the complex because you have children.

TIP: The landlord is also prohibited from required an extra security deposit or other fee because you have children.

Because of a job transfer, I need to rent my home for a year and I do not want to rent to anyone with children. Am I breaking any laws?

No. The Fair Housing Act does not apply to single-family home rentals where a real estate broker is not involved. As long as you handle the transaction yourself, you can refuse to rent to families with children (or anyone else) without violating the Fair Housing Act.

I believe that I was discriminated against when I tried to rent an apartment. What is the procedure for making a complaint?

You have 1 year to notify HUD (Office of Housing and Urban Development) of the discriminatory action. You can call HUD's hotline at 800.669.9777 or make a complaint at their Web site.

You can also make a complaint by writing a letter to HUD that includes:

  • your name and address;
  • the name and address of the person your complaint is about;
  • the address of the house or apartment you were trying to rent or buy;
  • the date when this incident occurred; and
  • a short description of what happened.

The letter should be mailed to the HUD offices at:

Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity

Department of Housing and Urban Development, Room 5204

451 Seventh Street SW

Washington, DC 20410-2000

How does HUD handle my complaint?

After HUD has received your complaint, an investigator will contact the person who allegedly discriminated against you and request a response. Typically, HUD attempts to mediate the matter. However, if the landlord continues to deny the discrimination and you stick to your story, the issue will be set for a hearing. Attorneys for HUD prosecute the matter on behalf of the U.S. government. The attorneys are not representing you personally, although you do have the right to be present and hire your own attorney if you choose.

What happens if the landlord is found to have discriminated against me?

If the hearing officers make a finding that discrimination occurred, you have the right to move into the housing you were initially denied. The landlord could be required to pay a fine of up to $50,000 in extreme cases of discrimination.