Have you ever witnessed fellow real estate professionals commit housing discrimination?

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Roughly one-in-four adults believe they have experienced housing discrimination at some point in their lives, according to a recent survey by Zillow and the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA).

Housing discrimination comes in many forms. In California, the Unruh Civil Rights Act requires real estate professionals to follow high anti-discriminatory measures. It 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; and
  • sexual orientation. [Calif. Civil Code 51(e)]

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 rents on a dwelling for prohibited discriminatory reasons;
  • use discriminatory criteria or different procedures for processing applications when renting a residence; or
  • evict tenants or tenants’ guests for prohibited discriminatory reasons.

The highest number of fair housing complaints are in regard to disability status, according to the NFHA. This is followed by complaints of race-based discrimination.

There are two types of discrimination committed by real estate professionals:

  • explicit discrimination, for example, when a real estate agent or landlord refuses to show homes to or accept applications from members of a protected group; and
  • implicit discrimination, the more common form of discrimination.

According to a decades-long study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)implicit racial discrimination ensures minority homebuyers (and renters) are:

  • shown fewer properties; and
  • given less information by real estate agents.

For example, consider a potential renter who has a disability which makes walking up and down stairs difficult. They are interested in a property that has stairs. When the landlord becomes aware of their disability, they refuse to accept their application, insisting the stairs will be a problem for their disability.

While the landlord may have been well-meaning, their actions were still discriminatory. [42 United States Code §3604(f)(1)]

So what is the appropriate and lawful action the landlord ought to take? In the example above, the landlord doesn’t need to go so far as to build an elevator to accommodate the applicants’ disability — that would be unreasonable. Rather, their duty is to make reasonable accommodations or modifications for their prospective tenant. For example, installing an accessibility ramp at the front entrance may be a reasonable accommodation when requested by the tenant, as long as it does not create a significant financial burden for the landlord. [42 USC §3604(f)(3)]

To ensure brokers, agents, mortgage loan originators (MLOs) and landlords don’t violate non-discrimination laws — even unintentionally — professionals need to:

  • ask the same questions of all applicants — for landlords, feel free to ask about matters that will actually impact tenancy like pets or water beds, but never ask about a protected status like race, religion, sexual orientation, pregnancy, disability status, etc.; and
  • keep records of client interactions — while a client is unlikely to pursue legal charges for discrimination, it’s best practice for an agent to keep track of all client interactions and property tours for several reasons, including identifying any unintentional biases.

When in doubt, contact a local fair housing expert for advice — find a list of experts at HUD’s website.

Related article:

Fair housing 101 for landlords