For landlords, tenant screening is an important way to weed out bad tenants and protect your investments.
However, landlords don’t have free reign when it comes to making housing decisions.
All renters have the right to equal opportunity in housing. Equal housing opportunity in the U.S. is primarily governed by three federal laws: the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Understanding these three laws, and the rules and regulations for landlords they mandate, is crucial to screening tenants fairly and avoiding penalties.
Below is an overview of the three federal fair housing laws you should know.
#1 The Federal Fair Housing Act
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects renters from discrimination based on their membership in specific classes.
The FHA was codified during the Civil Rights Movement immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Today, the FHA prohibits discrimination in a broad range of housing transactions, including the sale, rental, and financing of homes.
There are seven federal fair housing act protected classes:
- Race – Personal characteristics including skin/color complexion, hair texture, and facial features.
- Color – Characteristics such as pigmentation, skin shade, and tone.
- Religion – Ethical, moral, and other beliefs systems that may or may not belong to an organized religion like Buddhism or Christianity.
- National Origin – Country of origin, ethnic background, or accented speech.
- Sex – Sex, gender, sexual orientation, transgender status, and other gender identities.
- Disability – Physical and mental disabilities, as well as privacy of medical records.
- Familial Status – The presence of a child under 18 years of age, those in the process of adopting, or pregnancy.
The FHA outlines discriminatory behaviors and practices that landlords must follow to avoid penalties. For example, landlords cannot do any of the following based on a renter’s membership in one of the seven protected classes:
- Refuse to rent, sell, or negotiate for housing
- Establish different rental terms, conditions, or privileges
- Provide different housing facilities
- Refuse to show a unit
- Deny that a unit is available for sale or rental
- Discourage someone from renting a unit
- Make or publish any advertisements that indicate a preference, limitation, or discrimination
- Increase the rent rate arbitrarily
- Use different criteria on rental applications (e.g., income minimums, credit analyses, application fees)
- Evict a tenant (if the tenant isn’t otherwise eligible by eviction law)
- Harass someone
The penalties for violating the FHA are severe.
The FHA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). An inadvertent violation could result in a discrimination complaint and a court date. If you are shown to have violated the FHA, you could be charged first violation fines around $16,000 or additional punitive damages and penalties up to $100,000 at the Federal Court.
#2 The Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is another key fair housing law. It protects people with disabilities from discrimination across many domains, including voting, employment, and housing.
One of the key disability rental rights outlined by the ADA is the right to request reasonable accommodations. These could be physical (e.g., installing a wheelchair ramp), procedural (e.g., allowing a renter to sign a lease orally), or policy-related (e.g., waiving your “no pets” policy for a renter who owns a service or emotional support animal).
Non-compliance with the ADA could be extremely costly for your rental business. According to the ADA, first violations of this law could result in civil penalties up to $55,000, while subsequent violations could cost up to $110,000.
#3 The Fair Credit Reporting Act
The third federal law to know is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA (Title VI of the Consumer Credit Protection Act) protects the privacy of renters’ credit information collected in a credit report.
For landlords, the FCRA dictates how you must handle credit information during the tenant screening process. For example, landlords must:
- Notify the renter when “adverse action” is taken against them based on their credit report. In other words, you must inform a renter if their credit report was the reason for their denial.
- Investigate any disputed information on a renter’s credit report.
- Dispose of credit reports when finished using them for screening.
The FCRA is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. There are two types of violations: willful noncompliance and negligent noncompliance. Fines vary from $100-$1,000 per violation, plus any legal fees.
There is much more to fair housing than the three laws covered here. For instance, most states provide additional protected classes (such as age or sexual orientation), and recent bills in several states are looking to regulate or eliminate landlords’ use of criminal background checks.
However, by understanding the principles behind these three laws, you already have a strong foundation for treating renters equitably in your rental business.