There are many valid reasons for a landlord to reject a potential tenant, such as poor credit, unstable job history or negative references from past landlords. However, several federal, state and local laws make certain kinds of housing discrimination illegal.

Landlords and tenants should know what kinds of discrimination are illegal, and the consequences and remedies for breaking the law.

Types of Illegal Discrimination

Various laws bar a treating a tenant differently based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Handicap
  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Family status (such as whether you have children)

The federal Fair Housing Act makes these landlord practices illegal:

  • Advertising for preferred tenants based on qualities such as skin color, religion or ethnicity
  • Having different standards (on credit checks, financially or otherwise) for different groups of prospective tenants
  • Refusing to rent to certain types of people
  • Ending a tenancy for discriminatory reasons

State and local laws differ, and may offer added protection.

Disabled Potential Tenants

Federal laws prevent a landlord from discriminating against a disabled person, whether their disability is physical or mental. Landlords can't ask questions about disability or ask for proof of disability. Screening and selecting tenants, including those with disabilities, based on financial standards used for all rental candidates is allowed.

Accommodating Tenant Disabilities

A landlord must accommodate a disabled person's needs, but this duty has limits. Either tenants or landlords may have to pay for the changes. For example, the landlord may have to pay if it receives federal assistance. Reasonable accommodation doesn't include changes that are an undue financial or administrative burden. Changes could include:

  • Installing a ramp for wheelchair access
  • Allowing a disabled tenant a reserved parking spot when parking lot space is generally unreserved
  • Modifying kitchens by lowering countertops and installing more accessible and safer appliances and plumbing

A landlord doesn't have to make modifications that would make the space unusable by a future tenant.

In making modifications, landlords can require approval before a tenant makes changes. Temporary methods can be used, with removal when the lease ends. The landlord can ask for medical proof that the modification is necessary, such as a note from the tenant's doctor. The note doesn't have to explain why the change is needed.

Discrimination Complaints

A tenant can file a complaint with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for suspected discrimination. A tenant must file a federal discrimination complaint within one year of the discriminatory act.

HUD will usually have a mediator work with the landlord and the tenant in what's called a conciliation, aimed at settling the dispute. When no settlement can be reached, an administrative hearing through HUD may be necessary. HUD then has 100 days to investigate the complaint and decide whether it should go to an administrative hearing.

The tenant also has the option of filing a lawsuit in federal or state court. The tenant must file a lawsuit within two years of the time the alleged discrimination occurred. It's often difficult to prove in court that a tenant was discriminated against for personal reasons.

But if the tenant wins, he or she will likely receive a judgment for damages, which would include any higher rent they've had to pay because of the discrimination. Because damages aren't likely to cover the cost of bringing the case, lawsuits are often a losing proposition in the long run.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Are landlords required to allow changes, such as access ramps, for a disabled tenant if it interferes with property access or use by other tenants?
  • Are the standards for normal wear and tear and security deposit refunds the same for all tenants, regardless of disability?
  • What is the scope of state and local landlord-tenant discrimination law in our area?

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