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The prohibition against discrimination in housing is well-established in modern society. Yet, the Fair Housing Act (also referred to as Title VIII or the FHA), considered the most sweeping and authoritative federal law against housing discrimination, was passed only as recently as 1968. In an effort to desegregate, protect against indecent treatment, eliminate blighted neighborhoods and increase equal opportunity, Congress enacted the FHA during a turbulent time when issues of civil rights, war, assassination and citizen protest loomed large.
This article provides a concise outline of this large, complex law.
The FHA prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of dwellings based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family makeup or disability. It should be noted that other federal, state and local laws may prohibit housing discrimination not only in the sale or rental of dwellings, but also of commercial property or undeveloped land. Other housing laws, varying broadly by jurisdiction, may also protect more classes of people against discrimination than the FHA, such as age, sexual orientation, transgender status, occupation, citizenship, domestic partnership status and more.
The FHA broadly prohibits housing discrimination by government entities — whether federal, state or local — and by private parties. The Act forbids housing discrimination in sales, rental, negotiation, terms and conditions, advertising, financing, insurance, or in real estate services, both by brokers and landlords. Related coercion, intimidation, threats or interference with rights granted by the Act is also illegal.
Broad, sweeping language in the FHA reaches practically any type of housing discrimination, even the most subtle. The Act reaches both intentional discrimination and discriminatory effect. Realtors must take care not to discourage or impede sales in particular neighborhoods because of potential buyers’ protected status. Specifically, it is illegal to untruthfully tell protected persons that housing is not available. In addition, local governments must take care not to administer zoning and permitting laws in a discriminatory fashion.
In the case of persons with physical or mental disabilities, the FHA may require reasonable accommodations or modifications. New multi-family housing must be designed for accessibility.
Congress exempted from the FHA the sale or rental of a single family home by its owner if he or she does not at the time have an interest in more than three such houses and if no real estate agent is involved. There are complicated restrictions on how often an owner can utilize this exemption. There are also complex exemptions related to dwellings with four or fewer units when one is owner occupied.
Religious organizations and private clubs are exempt in their use of noncommercial housing.
The provision forbidding discrimination against families with children does not apply to housing complexes for senior citizens.
A party may refuse to rent or sell to anyone posing a threat to health or safety, or likely to substantially damage property.
Anyone considering a sale or rental under these exemptions should consult a skilled real estate attorney to understand how to proceed within the law.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has responsibility to administer and enforce the Act, and to promote fair housing practices.
The FHA provides for three avenues of legal redress: a complaint with HUD with the potential for serious enforcement action, a civil lawsuit in state or federal court, and a federal court action by the Attorney General for matters of broader public import. Criminal sanctions may be imposed on those using force or threats of force to interfere with people exercising their housing rights.
The FHA and other federal, state and local anti-discrimination housing laws are important to many parts of society. Real estate brokers, bankers and other lenders, government officials at all levels, real estate developers and landlords must all be familiar with the FHA’s sweeping requirements. Prospective buyers and renters should be aware of their legal rights to protection. An experienced and knowledgeable real estate lawyer can advise you of your responsibilities and rights under the FHA and other fair housing laws. If you may have been illegally discriminated against in the purchase or rental of real estate, be sure to consult with an attorney as soon as possible to avoid missing any deadlines for legal relief.
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