Understanding Federal Fair Housing Laws When Screening Tenants

There are plenty of rules, regulations, and best practices to follow as a landlord but probably none more important the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 which is administered by the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). What may seem like a simple conversation with a potential tenant to you could cost you thousands later on if you’re found guilty of a fair housing violation.  Tenant screening is a necessary part of finding and approving new tenants. Make sure to stay within the law with each prospective and current tenant.

Protected Classes

The federal fair housing laws are fairly clear. Landlords are not allowed to discriminate against anyone in a protected class. These protected classes include race or color, religion, national origin, familial status or age (example: pregnant women, anyone under a certain age, etc.), disability or handicap, and sex. Protected classes do not mean one specific race or gender is protected but that everyone, within their specific group, is protected by the law.

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There are very specific rules landlords need to follow in order to stay within federal fair housing laws.

  1. Do not advertise or say anything that appears to disallow or show preference for any specific protected class. Example: Advertising an apartment complex as a Christian community could give the impression that non-Christians are not welcome or allowed to rent.
  2. Never lie and say a rental is unavailable. Allow any prospective tenant to go through your application process.
  3. Don’t require some applicants to meet more restrictive guidelines than other possible tenants or refuse to rent to a specific protected class. As an example, stating that you do not allow families or people from a specific country could get you in trouble.
  4. Don’t set different terms for a rental for one tenant over another – either before or during their lease. Treat all tenants equally.
  5. Never evict or cancel a lease for a discriminatory reason.

Stay Within the Law During Tenant Screening

There are several things you can do to protect yourself and stay within the law when you’re screening potential tenants.

  • Each state has its own set of fair housing laws which could be more restrictive than the federal laws. Check those laws to make sure you’re in compliance on the state level.
  • Create a formal rental policy that will be applied to all tenants and prospective tenants. It should include your occupency guidelines, an availability policy, rental criteria, and an outline of the application process.
  • Watch your small talk. Asking what you consider to be a harmless question such as, “Where are you from?” or “Are you married” could be considered discriminatory. If you have to reject that prospective tenant later, you don’t want to be accused of discrimination against families or people from specific locations.
  • Keep all rules consistent and general. This is especially true for apartments that may have a set of rules all residents need to abide by. Make sure they’re non-discriminatory. They should apply to all residents, and never just to specific groups. Always use general terms such as “residents” as this doesn’t point to one specific group and clearly is intended for anyone who lives at the location.

It may seem as if you can’t say or do anything without being accused of discrimination these days. Your motives may be pure but don’t leave yourself open for the appearance of discrimination. Remember to treat tenant screening like the business function it is and stick to your application process as well as your written policy. If they become your tenant, you have plenty of time later to get to know them. Don’t let simply curiousity cost you tens of thousands of dollars in a legal battle over fair housing laws.

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