What To Do if You Face Housing Discrimination (& How to Prove it in Court)


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Despite decades of anti-discrimination legislation and other efforts to fight redlining, create fair lending, and ban racial and other bias, housing discrimination can still exist in many markets throughout the country, especially for first-time homebuyers.

It can be subtle or overt. Either way, housing discrimination holds people of color, immigrants, families with children, and LGBTQ people back by denying them access to safe neighborhoods, good schools, and the generational wealth that comes with homeownership.

This guide offers more information on housing discrimination and what to do if it happens to you.

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What Is Housing Discrimination?

Federal law defines housing discrimination as discrimination concerned with renting or buying a property based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), familial status, or disability. In other words, if anyone in the house-hunting or mortgage loan process treats a person buying, renting, or selling housing differently because of any of these reasons, they are breaking the law.

Whether first-time homebuyers are buying a starter home or upsizing, they may want to fine-tune their anti-bias antennas and know the laws.

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Housing Discrimination Examples

Housing discrimination comes in many forms. It could be a landlord who charges higher fees to renters with children, a real estate agent who refuses to show immigrants homes in certain neighborhoods, or a buyer offering less because of the seller’s race.

What’s more, housing discrimination can be subtle, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), making it difficult to prove and punish. Here are examples of subtle housing discrimination described on HUD’s website:

An African American man speaks on the phone to a landlord who seems eager to rent to him. But when the man meets with the landlord to fill out the application, the landlord’s attitude is different. A few days later, the potential renter receives a letter saying his application was denied because of a bad reference from his current landlord. But his current landlord says he was never contacted.

An Asian man meets with a real estate broker because he is interested in purchasing a house for his family in a specific neighborhood. When he mentions the neighborhood, the broker tells the Asian man that she has wonderful listings in a neighborhood where there are more people like him. When he looks at houses in the neighborhood she recommends, he notices that the majority of residents are Asian. The man files a complaint. Steering buyers to certain neighborhoods because of race is illegal.

Sexual harassment, failure to comply with accessibility requirements, and rules against renting or selling to families with children are also discriminatory.

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Equal Opportunity Housing Laws to Know

Housing discrimination by sellers, lenders, and landlords based on race, color, religion, or nationality has been illegal since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The act was expanded in 1974 to include gender and in 1988 to include families with children and people with disabilities. Additional laws concerning discrimination in mortgage lending are included in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, passed in 1974.

Some situations are exempt from the Fair Housing Act. These include some types of senior housing and housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs. Single-family rental homes are also exempt as long as the landlord does not own more than three homes and does not advertise or broker the rentals. Owner-occupied properties with four or fewer rental units are not governed by the Fair Housing Act.

States and local jurisdictions may have additional laws regarding housing discrimination. For instance, many states and cities ban discrimination based on age, criminal history, immigration status, marital status, or sexual orientation.

In 2020 the Trump administration made several changes to HUD regulations, making it more complicated for people to prove they are victims of housing discrimination. Specifically, victims had to go to great lengths to show that the discrimination was intentional. In early 2021, President Joe Biden signed executive orders aimed at reversing those changes. Housing discrimination continues, however, and in 2023, HUD announced that it was making $30 million in additional funding available to state and local fair housing enforcement agencies across the country to help fight discriminatory practices.

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What to Do About Potential Discrimination

First, become familiar with the federal, state, and local laws that may apply. Knowing the laws and how they work is vital to filing an effective complaint and getting a successful outcome.

If you think you are a victim of housing or mortgage lending discrimination, you can file a federal complaint with the HUD Office of Fair Housing Equal Opportunity (FHEO). This office investigates claims concerning any of the protected classes specified in the Fair Housing Act. You can file a complaint online or mail the complaint form to your regional HUD office or call the Housing Discrimination Hotline at 800-669-9777. The complaint form is available in nine languages, including English and Spanish, and any retaliation for filing a complaint is illegal.

The FHEO is supposed to investigate complaints within 100 days. Sometimes complaints prompt the U.S. Department of Justice to file lawsuits against people or companies that may have violated the law.

You may also want to file a complaint with your state attorney general’s civil rights bureau or your city’s civil rights or fair housing commission. This may be more effective than filing solely with the FHEO, especially in areas with extensive housing discrimination regulations. To find out where to file a complaint in your area, start with the National Fair Housing Alliance website for a list of local agencies.

In addition to the FHEO, mortgage lending discrimination complaints can be filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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How to Make Your Case Proving Housing Discrimination

Extensive documentation can help prove housing discrimination. When you are talking to real estate agents, sellers, landlords, or lenders, it’s a good idea to listen carefully and take notes during each conversation. HUD officials suggest looking for what they call red-flag language. This may occur when a real estate agent is trying to steer you away from or into a particular neighborhood. Phrases such as “This wouldn’t be a good fit for you” or “You’d be happier in this other neighborhood” can be red flags.

If you feel you are being “steered,” you can do an online search to learn if a broker failed to show all of the houses in the local housing market in your price range.

If you suspect lending discrimination, such as being quoted a higher rate than you expected, you can check the posted rates online at that mortgage lender and others to see how they compare. You can take screenshots or print this information.

Keep an eye out for and document surprising obstacles that come up in the home buying or renting process. Perhaps a landlord, seller, or agent has said a property is not available but then you find that it is still on the market weeks later. Or maybe your application to purchase a co-op is denied, but you aren’t given a specific reason why. 

These may be signs of discrimination. You’ll want to document the situation with dated notes from your conversations and screenshots or copies of the ads showing the property still available after you were turned down.

Local housing advocacy and human rights groups also offer help. Organizations such as the Fair Housing Justice Center may help you conduct tests using volunteers of different races to test for disparate treatment in specific locations. These tests can also provide compelling evidence for your case.

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The Takeaway

Longstanding laws and regulations are not enough to eradicate housing discrimination, but informed buyers and renters can fight back. Make sure you advocate for yourself at every stage of the process.

This article originally appeared on SoFi.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

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