A Guide To The Fair Housing Act And Its Exemptions

Article Courtesy of  Forbes Advisor

By Cathy Bond + Rachel Witkowski

Published May 3, 2021

fair housing act

Everyone deserves a stable, affordable place to live. But the unfortunate truth is that discrimination in housing has prevented some vulnerable groups from achieving this cornerstone of the American Dream.

The good news is that there are laws in place to protect people from being discriminated against when securing housing. One of the most important is the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Here’s what the FHA covers and how you can protect yourself from discriminatory practices.

What Is the Fair Housing Act of 1968?

The Fair Housing Act is a critical set of guidelines that prevent prospective homeowners and renters from discrimination through the sale, rental agreement or financing of their home.

The act was signed into law by President Lydon Johnson in 1968 after several years of policymakers struggling to push it through until the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prompted congressional action.

Today, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees and enforces the Fair Housing Act. It prohibits discrimination in housing based on: race or color, national origin, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity, per a new executive order), familial status and disabilty. Anyone who attempts to rent, buy or sell a home, take out a mortgage or obtain housing assistance, is protected. The act also applies to most housing types, with a few exceptions.

How the Fair Housing Act Protects Against Housing Discrimination

Housing is a broad term. So who, exactly, is prohibited from engaging in discrimination?

The FHA outlaws discrimination by:

  • Landlords
  • Property owners and managers
  • Developers
  • Real estate agents
  • Mortgage lenders and brokers
  • Homeowner associations
  • Insurance providers
  • Anyone else who impacts housing opportunities

Essentially, any person or entity that’s involved in the process of securing housing is required to follow FHA guidelines. If someone believes they were discriminated against, they can contact HUD, which they will then investigate.

Examples of Housing Discrimination

Discrimination can occur in many ways and to different classes of people. Here are a few examples:

  • Selling or renting. It’s illegal to refuse a home sale or rental to someone based on race, sex or any of the other factors outlined in the FHA. That includes falsely stating that a home is no longer on the market when it is, or providing different terms or facilities to one person over another. It’s also against the law to persuade homeowners to sell or rent their property based on the fact that people of a particular race or other protected class are moving into the neighborhood, intending to earn a profit.
  • Mortgage lending. Lenders can also discriminate against mortgage applicants if the lender refuses to provide information about a loan, rejected the applicant entirely or imposed different terms and conditions (interest rates, fees, etc.) based on the applicant’s race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin. Similar discrimination can occur during the appraisal process.
  • Homeowners insurance. If an insurance company refuses to provide homeowners insurance to an owner or occupant of a dwelling because of their race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin, it’s considered discrimination. It’s also discrimination to offer different terms or conditions, or provide limited or information about an insurance product based on those same factors.
  • Accommodating disabilities. People who have mental or physical disabilities (such as mobility impairment or chronic mental illness) that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” are entitled to certain housing accommodations. If reasonable accommodations aren’t allowed even at your own expense, it may be considered discrimination. For example, a building that usually doesn’t permit tenants to have pets would need to allow a visually impaired tenant to keep a guide animal.
  • Advertising. When advertising the sale or rental availability of a dwelling, any language published that indicates preference or limitations based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin is discrimination. This also applies to advertising for single-family and owner-occupied housing, which is otherwise exempt from the FHA.

Fair Housing Act Exemptions

Though the Fair Housing Act applies to most situations, there are some exemptions.

For example, if a dwelling has four or fewer units and the owner lives in one of them, they are exempt from the FHA. However, they would not be exempt under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act unless the dwelling contained only two units and one was owner-occupied.

Additionally, any single-family housing that’s sold or rented without the use of a broker is exempt from the FHA, as long as the owner is a private individual who doesn’t own more than three such homes at one time. Again, they would not be exempt in the state of Pennsylvania due to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Housing communities for the elderly are also exempt from the FHA in most cases. In order to not violate the family status provision, it must meet one of several conditions. For instance, HUD must have determined that it’s specifically designed for and occupied by elderly occupants under a federal, state or local government program. Alternatively, it can be 100% occupied by people age 62 or older.

Another option is that the community houses at least one person age 55 or older in at least 80% of the occupied units. The property must also have a policy demonstrating that the intent of the community is to house people age 55 or older.

Finally, religious organizations and private clubs are allowed to give preference to members as long as they don’t discriminate in their membership.

How Fair Housing Laws Are Enforced

The HUD is the federal agency in charge of implementing and enforcing the Fair Housing Act. It does so through its Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), which is headquartered in Washington, with 10 regional offices across the U.S. The purpose of these offices is to enforce FHA compliance, administer fair housing programs and educate consumers.

The FHEO primarily enforces fair housing programs by funding third-party organizations. For instance, the Fair Housing Initiatives Program provides grants to private organizations that investigate complaints, and even place people undercover to find FHA violations.

How to Protect Yourself Against Fair Housing Violations

If you believe your rights were violated under the Fair Housing Act, it’s important to file a complaint right away. HUD will investigate claims made within one year of the violation.
When filing a complaint, be prepared to provide the following information:

  • Your name and address
  • Name and address of the person or company your complaint is against (also known as the respondent)
  • Address or other identification of the housing involved
  • The date and a brief description of the incident that led to your rights being violated

You can file a complaint with the FHEO online, using the HUD Form 903. You can also download this form and email it to your local FHEO office. You can also mail a letter or call an office directly.

Once your complaint is received and accepted, HUD will notify you in writing. It will also notify the respondent that you filed a complaint and give them some time to submit a written response. The FHEO will investigate your complaint and decide whether or not there is reasonable cause to believe that the respondent violated the FHA. Additionally, HUD will offer you and the respondent the opportunity to voluntarily resolve the complaint with a Conciliation Agreement.

If it’s determined there was a rights violation and you don’t come to an agreement with the respondent, you may need to consult with a lawyer and determine the next steps.