Prevent Lawsuits by Following the Fair Housing Act

fair housing act

Being a successful landlord in California means understanding and following many state (and federal and local) laws that impact your property management. It includes rules about security deposits and when to hire a property manager. One crucial responsibility is following anti-discrimination laws.

A first-time violation of the Fair Housing Act constitutes a penalty of $21,410. Discriminatory tenant screening based on religion, race, family status, age, disability, nationality, and gender is illegal. It means property owners cannot refuse to offer tenancy and change lease agreement terms based on “special” terms that have been set. Even if they don’t personally discriminate, they can still be held liable for civil rights violations.

Let’s look at the important fair housing laws California rental properties and what happens if landlords don’t follow these rules.

Fair Housing Act: Brief Historical Overview

On April 11, 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. The statute has been amended over the past decades. While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 initially did not include discrimination against a tenant’s gender, by 1974, it was included. The Fair Housing Act of 1988 added disability and family status as discriminating factors concerning a property owner’s refusal to provide tenancy.

While this act functions as basic protection of tenant’s rights, it’s still important for property owners to understand how it’s subtly exploited so that they do not risk potential lawsuits.

What is Protected Against Illegal Housing Discrimination in California?

1. Race & Religion

According to this federal statute, an apartment building owner cannot advertise any preferences nor deny the availability of the units. While there is no explicit discrimination against other communities, there are cases of subtle bias that are not allowed as well. For instance, a property owner cannot advertise the unit as part of a ‘safe Christian community’. This advertisement violates federal law as it implies that a tenant from another community is not preferred.

2. Family Status

It’s illegal to deny tenancy if the property owner believes the tenant’s children may destroy the property’s belongings. For tenants with families, another tricky situation that apartment building owners can create is setting low occupancy limits unjustly. Again, this is prohibited, as federal law dictates that at least two persons should be allowed per bedroom. If it’s a genuine reason based on the unit’s infrastructure, such as its plumbing system’s capacity, it must be proved to the federal authorities.

3. Emotional support animals & disability

Even if the property’s lease agreement restricts pets, the Fair Housing Act necessitates the property owner to create a ‘reasonable accommodation’ clause. Under this clause, a pet is allowed as an assistance animal. However, the prospective tenant has to provide a letter from a medical doctor stating s/he has a disability and that an assistance animal helps him/her cope with it emotionally.
A property owner cannot ask a potential tenant about his/her disability. The apartment building owner is further prohibited under the Fair Housing Act from determining which part of the property is suitable for the resident, irrespective of his/her incapacity.

4. Age of the tenant

When a tenant is older, the property owner cannot impose special terms on the lease agreement.

5. Gender

A property owner cannot rent a unit, considering it is best suited for a male tenant instead of a female resident. For instance, the unit on the first floor may have a higher risk of burglary and assault. The unit owner cannot set a term or advertise that it’s best suited for a male occupant.

6. Additional laws in the Golden State

In addition to all of the above, property owners in California cannot discriminate against tenants based on the following:

  • Source of income: It is illegal for property owners to advertise their properties that tenancy is only allowed if the tenant has a job. Landlords also cannot demand a large deposit if the prospective tenant has retired or is currently receiving alimony and child support.
  • Sexual orientation: Property owners simply cannot deny tenancy on the basis of their sexual orientation. Passing derogatory comments publicly based on the resident’s sexual orientation is also a criminal offense.
  • Arbitrary discrimination: Property owners cannot refuse tenancy if the prospective tenant has tattoos, piercings, etc.

What Actions Qualify as Discriminatory in the State of California?

Here’s a list of actions that are considered unfair or discriminatory when it comes to housing in California:

  1. Saying no to renting to someone due to their race, color, nationality, gender, family situation, or because they have a disability might be considered as treating them unfairly.
  2. Saying a house is not ready for renting when it actually is.
  3. Terminating a lease agreement illegally.
  4. Creating policies for renting homes that make it unfair for some people to access housing.
  5. Giving different rules or benefits to different tenants.
  6. Not allowing changes or special arrangements in housing for people with disabilities, including those with emotional or mental health conditions.
  7. Unfair treatment of security deposit 
  8. Using phrases like ‘suitable for men’ or ‘best for people without disabilities’ in rental ads.

What are the Penalties for Discriminating Against a Tenant? 

Following a formal accusation, landlords may face multiple hearings to present their defense. If a fair housing violation is determined, they could be responsible for:

  1. Payment for financial damages to the tenant. It may include what the tenant spends on finding another place to stay.
  2. The tenant suffered compensation for intangible harm, including emotional distress and humiliation.
  3. Fines can be as much as tens of thousands of dollars due to breaking the rules.
  4. Compensatory damages to deter similar misconduct in the future.
  5. The landlord might lose the privilege of being in the housing business.
  6. They could also face criminal charges.

How Can a Landlord in California Avoid Housing Discrimination Claims? 

Here are a few things that you can do to protect yourself against housing discrimination claims:

1. Understand and Honor California Law

Knowing and understanding California Fair Housing laws equips you to navigate rental management responsibly and ethically.

2. Keep Detailed Records

Documenting interactions and decisions in case of concerns helps maintain clear records for all parties involved.

3. Make Fair and Consistent Policies

Create transparent and consistent rental policies that apply equally to all potential tenants, regardless of race and ethnicity.

4. Maintain Professionalism

Even the most challenging situations require a calm and professional approach among landlords and tenants.

5. Be Mindful of Your Words

Be mindful of your language and words, and avoid any statements that could be interpreted as discriminatory, even unintentionally.

6. Show Respect

Treating tenants with respect fosters a positive relationship and minimizes the risk of conflict. A friendly smile and open communication can go a long way.

7. Avoid Defensiveness

If a concern arises, listen openly and avoid defensiveness. Understanding and resolving issues constructively benefits everyone.

8. Review Rental Ads

Review your rental ads carefully. Avoid using language that could be misinterpreted as discriminatory, like restrictions on pets, families, or professions.

9. Consider Expert Assistance

Consider partnering with a reputable property management company. They can provide valuable expertise and ensure compliance with Fair Housing laws.

10. Embrace Equality

Remember, housing discrimination is illegal and harmful. Commit to providing fair and equal opportunities for all potential tenants.

Applying the Fair Housing Act with BFPM

These are among the several foundational aspects that constitute the Fair Housing Act. If you’re a property owner in California and do not want to wind up with accidental lawsuits, consult Beach Front Property Management today.

Being a landlord in California comes with significant responsibility, especially regarding tenant rights and Fair Housing regulations. Navigating these legalities can feel overwhelming. So, seeking expert guidance is crucial to protect yourself and your tenants.

For legal advice on landlord-tenant laws and the Fair Housing Act, consult BFPM. We can provide specific guidance tailored to your situation and ensure your compliance with all regulations.

Disclaimer: This information is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. The laws mentioned are subject to change and interpretation. We are not lawyers, and this should not be considered legal counsel. We recommend consulting with a qualified legal professional for any specific legal advice regarding multifamily property laws in California.

Read our related blog here:

New Housing Laws in California 2024: Everything You Need to Know

Trevor Henson

Trevor Henson is an experienced entrepreneur (10+ highly-successful start-ups) and property investor with a demonstrated history of building and leading teams in investment property management environments, maximizing returns for property owners, and optimizing properties through construction management and re-positioning. He…
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Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects individuals against discrimination in housing based on seven specific classes:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Family Status
  • Disability
  • Color
  • National Origin

Yes, in most cases, Fair Housing Laws do apply to private landlords. There are a few limited exemptions to the FHA, such as:

  • Owner-occupied dwellings with no more than four units if the owner does not use a real estate agent or broker.
  • Single-family homes are sold or rented directly by the owner without an agent, and if

Fair Housing Laws themselves do not directly address whether landlords can waive late fees. They focus on preventing discrimination against protected classes in housing matters, including rent payments and fees.

Apartments deny applications for several reasons. Some of the common reasons are:

  • Credit score.
  • Income.
  • Rental history of late payments.
  • Criminal background, etc..

It would be a violation of the law if you were denied a rental space because of race or because you have children.

Landlords are prohibited from discriminating against tenants based on their race, nationality, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, ancestry, disability status, marital status, familial status, source of income, or veteran status.

In California, the primary exception is for a single-family home occupied by the owner who rents to just one person and adheres to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which prohibits discriminatory statements, notices, or advertisements.