What Is Fair Housing?

In April of 1968, just a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Congress passed the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), which made it illegal to discriminate against people in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. In 1988, the Fair Housing Amendments Act became law, adding protections based on disability and familial status.

Since 1963, California has also prohibited certain types of discrimination in housing. Today, these laws are known as the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act. In addition to those characteristics listed under federal law, California bans housing discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, ancestry, age, source of income and arbitrary characteristics.

The important thing to note about federal and state Fair Housing laws is that they only prohibit discrimination based on a protected characteristic. A bank can deny you a mortgage because you have poor credit, or a housing provider can refuse to rent to you because you are low-income, or have an eviction on your record. These things may not be fair, but they aren’t illegal. To violate the law, a housing provider must treat you differently because of a protected characteristic. For example, it would be a violation of the law if you were denied a mortgage because of race, or denied a rental unit because you have children. There must be a connection between the negative treatment and one of the listed characteristics.

Who Does the Law Apply To?

The FHA covers most housing, with a few exceptions, such as owner-occupied buildings with four or less units and some single-family homes. California law, however, covers almost every type of housing and housing provider imaginable. Under FEHA, there are only four circumstances in which the law does not apply:

  • Owner-occupied units wherein the owner is leasing to only one boarder
  • Religious organizations providing certain types of housing may limit occupancy to people of the same religion
  • Private clubs providing certain types of housing may also give preference to members
  • An individual may state a preference for a roommate of a specific sex if sharing living spaces

Generally speaking, if a person or entity has control over your housing or any housing-related services, it’s likely that the Fair Housing laws apply. Housing discrimination laws have been applied to property owners, managers, maintenance staff, real estate brokers and agents, homeowners associations, mobile home parks, local housing authorities and governments. The courts have also interpreted the laws to apply to some hotels, motels, vacation rentals and homeless shelters.

The law also covers neighbor-on-neighbor harassment based on a protected characteristic. Homeowners or tenants who engage in a campaign of harassment against their neighbors on the basis of race, for example, may be held liable under the FHA. A housing provider may also be held liable for the action of its tenants if it fails to address this type of harassment once notified.

What Does the Law Prohibit?

It is illegal to do any of the following because of someone’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, familial status, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, ancestry, age, source of income, or because of an arbitrary characteristic:

  • Refuse to rent or sell housing
  • Refuse to negotiate for housing
  • Make housing unavailable
  • Apply different terms, conditions, or privileges with respect to the sale or rental of housing, either before or after an individual purchases or rents a dwelling
  • Provide different housing services or facilities
  • Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental
  • Deny anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing
  • Refuse to grant a reasonable accommodation or modification so that a person with disabilities has equal access to the housing of his/her choice
  • In mortgage lending:
    • Refuse to make a mortgage loan
    • Refuse to provide information regarding loans
    • Impose different terms or conditions on a loan, such as different interest rates, points, or fees
    • Discriminate in appraising property
    • Refuse to purchase a loan
    • Set different terms or conditions for purchasing a loan
  • Threaten, coerce, intimidate, or interfere with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right
  • Advertise or make any verbal or written statement that indicates a limitation or preference on the basis of a protected characteristic (This prohibition against discriminatory advertising applies to all housing, even if exempted from other portions of the FHA and FEHA)

It is also illegal to implement a neutral policy that has the effect of discriminating on the basis of a protected characteristic, or perpetuating segregation based on a protected characteristic. This is called disparate impact discrimination.

Individuals who assert their rights under the Fair Housing laws, or assist someone in asserting their rights, are protected from retaliation.

Though these prohibited actions may seem straightforward, they are anything but. Did you know that sex discrimination includes sexual harassment? Or that familial status discrimination includes banning children from playing outside? To learn about the specific types of behaviors the Fair Housing laws prohibit, click on each of the protected characteristics in the section below.

Protected Characteristics

The protected characteristics as defined in the federal and state fair housing laws are listed below. Each page includes information and resources about the types of complaints and prohibited behaviors associated with each characteristic. 

Federally Protected Characteristics
State Protected Characteristics

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For further information email: info@housing.org or call 408-720-9888.