The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that was passed in 1968. It prohibits discrimination in the buying, renting, selling or financing of housing or when seeking housing assistance. The act specifically prohibits discrimination based on race, skin color, national origin, religion, sex — including gender identity and sexual orientation — disability and the presence of children.

What does the Fair Housing Act do?

The Fair Housing Act expressly prohibits discriminatory practices, policies and behavior among those involved with the housing rental, purchase and financing industry. Specifically, the law prohibits discrimination by landlords, real estate companies, lending institutions, mortgage brokers, real estate agents/brokers and even homeowners insurance companies. Municipalities themselves also must comply with the act’s tenets.

Rules for landlords, real estate managers, developers and real estate brokers/agents

According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords, real estate companies, sellers of real estate, and other agencies or persons may not use a buyer’s or renter’s protected class characteristics as a reason to:

  • Falsely claim housing is unavailable.
  • Deny access to real estate services or facilities.
  • Decline the sale or rental of a property.
  • Refuse to negotiate for housing.
  • Provide different sale or lease terms that other applicants would not receive.
  • Deny access or membership to a service (such as an MLS or multiple listing service) related to housing.
  • Provide different housing services or facilities.
  • Demand a different sales or rental price.
  • Neglect or delay maintenance or repairs.
  • Otherwise make housing unavailable.

Rules for banks, lenders, mortgage companies and mortgage brokers

Regarding mortgages, lenders are forbidden to take the following actions based on a person’s protected class:

  • Decline to provide information regarding loans.
  • Deny a mortgage loan.
  • Impose different conditions or terms, such as charging different interest rates, points, or fees.
  • Discriminate in appraising property.
  • Refuse to purchase a loan.

Furthermore, it’s illegal to make threats against, intimidate, or coerce persons exercising their fair housing rights or assisting others to exercise their rights. It’s also illegal to make statements or advertise limitations or housing preferences based on a person’s protected status.

While most housing is covered, the act does exempt owner-occupied dwellings with four or fewer units, single-family homes rented or sold without a broker, and housing operated by private clubs and organizations that limit residency to members.

Why was the FHA passed?

The Fair Housing Act is also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It is technically part of that larger piece of legislation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was meant to be a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on April 11, 1968, the act augmented previous measures: One of its main objectives was to prohibit race discrimination with regard to housing.

Race-based housing discrimination was still very much a challenge in the late 1960s when the Fair Housing Act came about. Minorities were often excluded from specific sections of cities or communities, or denied loans to purchase or build properties there. And when such obstacles were challenged, denials, hostility and even violence often ensued.

The Fair Housing Act expressly prohibits such discriminatory practices, policies and behavior among those involved with the housing rental, purchase and financing industry. It covered discrimination, harassment, threats or retaliation against individuals based on their race or color, religion, sex, national origin, family status or disability. For those in these categories or “protected classes,” the act also provided recourse if they felt their rights had been violated.

Exceptions to the Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act applies to most housing. However there are some limited circumstances in which owner-occupied buildings may be exempt if the property contains are no more than four units. In cases involving a single-family home that is sold or rented without an agent, there are also some limited exemptions. And finally, in cases of housing that is run by religious organizations or private clubs, the law may not apply.

Using the Fair Housing Act

If you believe your rights have been violated or you can have suffered discrimination, you can file a complaint with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO). Complaints can be filed online either in English or in Spanish. Complaint forms are also available to be downloaded in other languages and can be emailed to your local FHEO office.

It’s important to be aware that there are time limits surrounding when a complaint can be filed after a suspected violation has taken place. It is best to file a complaint as soon as possible.

When filing a complaint, be prepared to provide information including your name and address, the name and address of the person or organization you are filing a complaint against, and the address of the housing or program involved. Your complaint will also need to include a brief description of why you believe your rights were violated.