April is fair housing month in California, and first tuesday would like to offer all our residential landlord readers a gift: a brief overview of fair housing laws.

If you’re a residential landlord, you’re already quite familiar with these laws as they are critical to your business operations. Thus, it’s important to keep the fundamentals on your radar and stay informed of any changes to these laws to avoid a lawsuit.

Stated simply, fair housing laws protect individuals from illegal discrimination and harassment in the renting, leasing or purchase of housing, according to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The federal Fair Employment and Housing Act and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act protect individuals from housing discrimination. Further, the California Bureau of Real Estate (BRE) enforces numerous regulations prohibiting discriminatory practices by real estate brokers and agents in real estate transactions.

The state Unruh Civil Rights Act provides more detailed protections, and thus controls in most cases. It protects against all intentional and implicit discrimination in all business establishments (including housing). Implicit discrimination is more nebulus and less overt, being actions which are not openly discriminatory, but result in discriminatory effects. The Unruh Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination due to:

  • age;
  • ancestry;
  • color;
  • disability;
  • genetic information;
  • national origin;
  • marital status;
  • medical condition
  • race;
  • religion;
  • sex (including gender and gender identity and expression);
  • pregnancy; or
  • sexual orientation.

Thus, a landlord or property manager may not:

  • refuse to rent a dwelling or to negotiate the rental of a dwelling for prohibited discriminatory reasons;
  • impose different rental charges on a dwelling for prohibited discriminatory reasons;
  • use discriminatory qualification criteria or different procedures for processing applications in the rental of a dwelling; or
  • evict tenants or tenants’ guests for prohibited discriminatory reasons.

What about a tenant’s source of income, you ask? It is in fact illegal in California to discriminate based on a tenant’s source of income. However, landlords are not required to accept Section 8 vouchers. This is because Section 8 vouchers actually aren’t considered the tenant’s income, because the payment is made directly from the government to the landlord. [Sabi v. Sterling. (2010) 183 CA 4th 916]

Further, an exception to the Unruh Civil Rights Act exists for senior housing. A housing project qualifies as senior housing if it is occupied only by persons who are 62 years of age or older. [24 Code of Federal Regulations §100.303]

A good rule of thumb is to simply not ask a potential or current tenant questions regarding the protected status above. For example, since you’re not allowed to discriminate based on a tenant’s nation origin, don’t ask them what country they were born in as this can never be a factor in deciding the terms, conditions or privileges for their rental of a dwelling.

Ask all potential tenants the same standard questions to ensure equal treatment. Also limit your inquiries to matters that are directly applicable to their tenancy or the maintenance of your rental property, like “Do you have pets? Do you intend of use a waterbed in the premises?” This allows you to screen tenants effectively and limits your vulnerability to a lawsuit from a potential tenant who thinks they were treated unfairly.

Some common violations include:

  • refusing to rent, lease or sell housing due to illegal discrimination;
  • sexual harassment, particularly demanding sexual favors in return for housing;
  • creating documents (such as covenants, conditions and restrictions—CC&Rs) that discriminate illegally;
  • denial of a home loan or insurance;
  • failure to reasonably accommodate a disability.

If you’re on shaky ground with fair housing laws, err on the side of caution. The penalties for violating these laws are serious, and can include awarding money to the individuals involved and paying attorney fees. If you have more questions, review the mandated 3-hours of Fair Housing contained in your four-year, 45-hour renewal coursework. Have something specific? Consult a local fair housing expert. A list of local housing services can be found at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.