Do Fair Housing Laws Apply to You?
As a landlord, you have the right to seek potential tenants with good credit and references. These are the current neutral standards by which a landlord can qualify prospective tenants. However, when it comes to advertising your rental, showing your property to prospects, and dealing with tenants thereafter, it is important to keep Fair Housing Laws in mind.
What do fair housing laws actually mean? Fair Housing laws are federal, state and local regulations that protect against discrimination in housing. The Fair Housing Act of 1974 mandates fair housing practices throughout the country. Anyone who rents property is affected by the law, which states that it is illegal to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. In some states and local districts the list of “protected traits” is even more inclusive.
For those of you aren’t experts on the subject, here are some things you should know:
A Brief Guide to Fair Housing Laws
Federal law provides an umbrella of protection, which states and local districts then refine. Below are general guidelines, followed by links to sites, that detail fair housing regulations for Washington DC and Montgomery County.
Rental Policy–According to the American Bar Association, many Fair Housing claims arise because of perceived bias in the application and screening process. Therefore, landlords are advised to have a clear, written rental policy, which details what is expected of potential tenants. Once written, the policy must apply to everyone equally. Using a licensed property manager can help you navigate the legal requirements for your rental.
Advertising–Ads must be carefully worded to avoid any hint of bias: “family-friendly”, “gay-friendly”, “traditional”, just to name a few. It is illegal to exclude, or appear to exclude anyone. Your property might be perfect for families with young children, but you can’t say so in the advertisement. The ad should include a disclaimer that you do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, familial status, religious or political affiliations, or disability.
Showing the Property–When showing the property, take the same approach with everyone. Avoid what’s known as “steering.” Steering is illegal, and happens when landlords, or their representatives, steer potential tenants towards or away from certain properties or units available for rent. For example, you “steer” the family with five children away from viewing specific properties as a result of your prejudices about children. Steering is particularly relevant in the case of an apartment complex that has multiple units for rent.
Screening Potential Tenants–To protect both landlord and potential tenants, the rental policy should be very clear about how tenants are screened, so there is no perception of bias. By law, it is acceptable to ask questions about prior evictions, bankruptcy and why a tenant is leaving their current situation. It is not legal to ask about physical or mental disabilities. Landlords should keep careful records of each tenant screened, to prove that the process is applied equally to everyone.
Applying Property Rules–Under the law, property rules apply equally to tenants, adults and children alike. Once established, rules must be uniformly enforced.
Knowing Local Laws—To understand the laws that apply to the greater DC-area, review local regulations: