The Federal Fair Housing Laws

Your housing rights are protected under federal law, and may be further covered by state and local laws and regulations. Because the laws for every state and community vary, this document focuses only on the federal law that applies to everyone in the United States. For information on fair housing laws and regulations in your area, contact your local human rights or fair housing advocacy organization. For help locating resources in your area, try the agency finder.

What federal laws cover fair housing

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended in 1988 (42 U.S.C. §3601 et seq.), also known as the Fair Housing Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (Title 42 of the United States Code sections 1981 and 1982) both prohibit discrimination in a wide array of real estate practices, including housing sale and rental, provision of homeowner's insurance and mortgage lending.

Who is protected by the fair housing laws?

The Fair Housing Act identifies seven classes protected by the law: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.  State and local laws often extend these protected classes to include such characteristics as sexual preference, age and even student status.  Check with your local fair housing or human rights advocacy organization to find out what classes are locally protected in your area.

Some notes on the protected classes:

Sexual discrimination includes sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is defined as deliberate or repeated unsolicited verbal comments, gestures, or physical contact that creates an offensive environment, or when sexual favors are sought in return for housing.

With regard to familial status, families are defined as at least one child under the age of eighteen living with at least one parent or appointed guardian.  It also includes pregnant women and those in the adoption process.

The Fair Housing Act defines "handicap" (or disability) as:

(1) a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such
person's major life activities,
(2) a record of having such an impairment, or
(3) being regarded as having such an impairment, but such term does not include current, illegal use of or addiction to a controlled substance.

What does the Fair Housing Act protect against?

The Fair Housing Act states a number of illegal practices, including:

  • 3604(a) Refusals to sell or rent

    "To refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any person because of.." membership in a protected class.
  • 3604(b) Discrimination in terms, conditions or privileges of sale

    "To discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of.." membership in a protected class.

    This type of discrimination is more subtle than outright refusal to rent or sell.   For instance, an apartment manager might require a higher security deposit from families with children than those without, or demand an extraordinarily high application fee from minority applicants.  Such different treatment is every bit as illegal as a more blatant outright refusal to rent or sell.
  • 3604(c) Advertising

    "To make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on.." membership in a protected class.
  • 3604(d)  Denying availability

    "To represent to any person because of..." membership in a protected class "..that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when such dwelling is in fact so available."

    A real estate agent, apartment manager, etc. may not falsely claim a lack of available properties or units to prospective tenants based on their membership in a protected class.
  • 3604(e) Blockbusting and Steering

    "For profit, to induce or attempt to induce any person to sell or rent any dwelling by representations regarding the entry or prospective entry into the neighborhood of a person or persons of a particular..." protected class.

    Blockbusting is an effort to induce panic in a neighborhood by telling white homeowners that other whites are leaving the area and that minorities are moving in, with the goal of getting white homeowners to sell their homes at unusually low prices.

    Steering is a practice whereby a real estate agent makes a practice of showing white clients homes in predominantly white neighborhoods and minority clients homes in predominantly non-white neighborhoods.
  • 3604(f) Failure to make reasonable accommodation

    Refusal to make 'reasonable modifications' to the premises of a dwelling, or the rules, policies, practices or services of a dwelling if such modifications are necessary to afford a person with a disability equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling.   What constitutes a reasonable accommodation is an involved issue covered in detail in the Fair Housing and Disability FAQ.
  • 3605 Lending discrimination and 'redlining'

    Discrimination in making loans for the purpose of real-estate transactions is illegal.  'Real-estate transactions' includes purchasing, constructing, improving, repairing or maintaining a dwelling.

    Redlining is a term derived from the practice of loan officers who would evaluate home mortgage applications by relying on a residential map where integrated and minority neighborhoods were marked off in red as poor risk areas. It is the practice of denying loan applications based on the neighborhood of the home in question.  For more information on redlining, please read Sara Pratt's The History of Insurance Redlining.
  • Other prohibited practices

    While the above mentioned practices are specifically prohibited by the Fair Housing Act, it is important to note that the broad language of section 3604(a): "..or otherwise make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any person because of..[membership in a protected class]" provides consumers with blanket implied protection against all other discriminatory practices.

    An excellent example is insurance discrimination.  While insurance discrimination is not specifically covered in the act, redlining by insurers is a significant barrier to equal opportunity in housing.  Many lawsuits have been filed against insurance agencies based on the provisions of the Act.

What housing is covered by the Fair Housing Act?

Section 3603 outlines the housing covered by the Fair Housing Act.  It defines a "dwelling" as:

(b) "Dwelling" means any building, structure, or portion thereof which is occupied as, or designed or intended for occupancy as, a residence by one or more families, and any vacant land which is offered for sale or lease for the construction or location thereon of any such building, structure, or portion thereof.

This definition applies to both publicly and privately owned dwellings.

Section 3603 specifies four circumstances in which a dwelling is exempt from the Fair Housing Act:

1) Any single-family house sold or rented by an owner, with the following conditions:

  • The owner cannot own in whole or in part any title or right to more than three single family houses at any one time;
  • If the owner was not the previous occupant of the dwelling being sold, the owner may not make another such sale exempt from the Fair Housing Act for 24 months;
  • The sale of the dwelling can in no way involve the services or facilities of any real estate broker, agent or salesman;
  • The seller cannot use any discriminatory advertising to assist the sale or rental of the dwelling.

2) Rooms or units in an owner occupied dwelling that houses no more than four families living independent of each other.

Section 3607 specifies two additional exemptions to the provisions of the act:

1) Religious organizations can show preference to members of the same religion when offering non-commercial (free), temporary housing.  Private clubs may show preference to club members under similar circumstances.

2) "Housing for older persons" is exempt only from the statutory provisions that prohibit discrimination against families with children. Housing for older persons is defined as housing:

a) provided under any State or Federal program that the Secretary determines is specifically designed and operated to assist elderly persons (as defined in the State or Federal program); or

b) intended for, and solely occupied by, persons 62 years of age or older; or

c) intended and operated for occupancy by persons 55 years of age or older. In order to qualify as housing for older persons under this subsection, the following requirements must be met:

i) at least 80 percent of the units must be occupied by at least one person 55 years of age or older;

ii) the housing community must publish and adhere to policies and procedures that demonstrate an intent to provide housing for persons 55 years of age or older; and

iii) the housing community must comply with rules issued by the Secretary of HUD for the verification of occupancy.

What housing is covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1866?

The provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 are extremely broad.  Section 1981 protects the right of all persons to make and enforce contracts free from racial discrimination.  Section 1982 protects the rights of citizens to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property.   The act only covers racial discrimination, however, and section 1982 only protects United States Citizens.