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What is the Fair Housing Act?

People cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their family status under the Fair Housing Act.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2014
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The Fair Housing Act is a piece of legislation which was passed in the United States in 1968, building on the previous Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Fair Housing Act was the main part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and you may hear the Fair Housing Act referred to as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 because of this. This piece of legislation was designed to spell out the types of housing bias which are illegal, and to set out clear penalties for violations of the act. It has been updated several times since 1968 to protect additional groups under the law.

Under the Fair Housing Act, people cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their national origin, creed, race, gender, family status, or disability. The Fair Housing Act covers landlords, realtors, and lenders, addressing the many facets of housing in the United States. If someone is suspected of a violation or reported to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Justice may choose to undertake a prosecution.

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There are a number of ways in which the Fair Housing Act works. In the most basic sense, people cannot be denied a rental or sale home on the basis of the categories above, although landlords can discriminate on the basis of financial means, ability to care for the property, and references. The Fair Housing Act also does not currently cover discrimination on the basis of sexual or gender orientation. Discrimination can take the form of advertisements with wording like “no Jews” and statements like “I will not rent to a family with children” during a property showing. It can also include practices like redlining and restrictive covenants.

One of the problems with the Fair Housing Act is that discrimination is often subtle, especially as it has become less and less socially acceptable. Few landlords are stupid enough to indicate that they refuse to rent to Hispanics in an advertisement, for example, but landlords are free to deny a rental with no explanation, and a racist landlord will do just that. Often, victims of discrimination are totally unaware of the discrimination, and therefore it goes unreported. The Department of Justice uses a Housing Testing team to look for cases of such discrimination, sending out people who act as renters or interested home buyers.

The Fair Housing Act also addresses coercion and threats to tenants and home buyers. If, for example, a landlord sexually harasses a tenant and claims that he will evict the tenant if the harassment is reported, this is illegal under the Fair Housing Act.

It would behoove both tenants and landlords to be aware of the terms of the Fair Housing Act. Landlords in particular must be very careful about what they say and how they word their leases. Many landlords like to use boilerplate forms for this very reason. Tenants should read the Fair Housing Act and connect with organizations which advocate for fair housing to ensure that they are dealt with fairly.

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