Fair Housing Laws

What Is Fair Housing?

Fair housing is the right of individuals and families to access the housing of their choice without being subjected to forms of discrimination prohibited by law. As a landlord, you need to be aware of local, state, and federal laws prohibiting housing discrimination. This chapter will cover fair housing laws and how they apply to you as a housing provider.

Fair Housing Violations Can Be Expensive

As a housing provider, one of the most potentially expensive mistakes you can make is to violate fair housing laws. Consequences for violations or perceived violations of the Fair Housing Act can include having an administrative complaint filed against you with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). A state or federal lawsuit may also be filed against you by a consumer who believes you have discriminated against them.

Victims of housing discrimination can win economic, non-economic, and punitive damages. Victims can be awarded out-of-pocket costs incurred while obtaining alternative housing and any additional costs associated with that housing. Non-economic damages for humiliation, mental anguish, or other psychological injuries may also be recovered.

Housing discrimination cases can also result in the prevailing plaintiff winning attorney’s fees. Even if you prevail in defending yourself in a fair housing discrimination case, it may cost you time and money and can hurt your professional reputation. You can protect yourself by adopting tenant screening policies and property management practices that do not discriminate or otherwise violate fair housing laws.

In addition, housing providers who violate fair housing laws can be subjected to civil penalties, government monitoring, injunctions, and loss of tax credits. Federal civil penalties that apply to violations of the Fair Housing Act can reach $21,663 for a first violation, $54,157 for a second violation within the preceding five years and $108,315 for violating the Act two or more times in the previous seven years. These sobering potential penalties emphasize the importance of understanding your responsibilities and liabilities as a housing provider.

What Happens When a Discrimination Complaint is Filed Against You?

Housing discrimination complaints filed against you can be in the form of any of the following:
  • A federal lawsuit, which can be filed up to two years from the date of the incident
  • An administrative complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), which can be filed with FHEO within one year from the incident
  • An administrative complaint filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), which can be filed with PHRC within 180 days from the incident
  • A lawsuit in state court, which can also be filed up to two years from the date of the incident
  • An administrative complaint filed with a local municipal human relations commission (statutes of limitations may vary and will be found in your local anti-discrimination ordinance)
  • Systemic violations which affect large numbers of consumers may be investigated and adjudicated by the U.S. Department of Justice or the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

If someone files a discrimination complaint against you, you will receive a letter from the administrative agency which received the complaint. You will be given a copy of the complaint with the allegations and will be given an opportunity to respond to the allegations in writing.

If you have a complaint filed against you, you will want to seek proper legal advice from an attorney. Be careful how you respond to a tenant who has filed a complaint against you. It is illegal to retaliate against someone for filing a complaint. It is illegal to threaten, coerce, intimidate, or interfere with someone exercising their fair housing rights or filing a complaint with an administrative enforcement agency. It is also illegal to threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with witnesses. Retaliation against a complainant will compound your legal liability.

It is important to maintain complete and accurate records and documentation with names, dates, and details regarding the allegations to help prove your case. It is easy to forget important details, so as soon as you can, write a narrative and timeline of the events which led up to the discrimination complaint being filed. You will want to collect the contact information for any witnesses.

The party filing the complaint with PHRC or FHEO is called the complainant and the party being accused of discrimination is called the respondent. If the complaint has been filed with PHRC or FHEO, then the agency will investigate the allegations and will also provide an opportunity for both parties to conciliate (or settle) the complaint. A conciliation is a compromise of sorts to end the administrative complaint process. A conciliation agreement will typically be made public. If the two parties cannot agree to a conciliation, then the investigating agency will issue a finding. If a finding of “no probable cause” for discrimination is made, then the administrative complaint process ends with no finding of discrimination. A complainant can still choose to pursue a lawsuit in either state or federal court as long as it is within the statute of limitations. If a conciliation agreement was signed, then the complainant will not be able to file a lawsuit in state or federal court.

If a finding of “probable cause” of discrimination has been made, then the investigating agency will issue a charge of discrimination against the respondent. After a finding has been issued, there will be a hearing and the case will be heard in front of an administrative law judge.

If the judge rules against you, you may find yourself responsible for any of the following:

  • Actual damages
  • Compensatory damages
  • Damages for humiliation or emotional distress
  • Punitive damages
  • Victim’s attorney’s fees
  • Federal civil penalties—$21,663 for the first violation, $54,157 for the second violation within five years of the first violation, and $108,315 for a third violation within seven years (24 CFR §180.671) (2021)
Even if you win the case and a “no probable cause” finding is made or a lawsuit ends in your favor, you will have incurred attorney’s fees, lost time, and possibly experienced much frustration.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself From Housing Discrimination Complaints?

It is extremely important that you understand local, state, and federal fair housing laws. Being a landlord is difficult enough without adding on the aggravation, time and considerable expense to defend yourself against a discrimination complaint. Make it a priority to:
  • Read this manual to give you a comprehensive overview of Pennsylvania state and federal fair housing law.
  • Check with your local municipality to see if there is an anti-discrimination ordinance in effect in the areas where you own or manage rental properties.
  • Make sure that any employees or representatives that work for you are properly trained and know how to handle situations which could potentially lead to fair housing complaints against you. Under the Fair Housing Act, you can be held responsible for the actions of third parties who are acting on your behalf. For more information see boxed text on third party liability.
  • Understand how your insurance policy is written and what it covers. Find out if your insurance policy covers your attorney’s fees. Will it cover any judgment against you? You will want to know if your insurance policy covers any employees who have been accused of discrimination. Find out if you insurance policy covers complaints filed with administrative agencies such as PHRC or FHEO.
  • Be aware that the tenant screening process is the area where landlords are most vulnerable to be accused of unlawful discrimination. Many housing discrimination complaints are filed due to discriminatory behavior or actions that occur during the application or tenant screening process.
  • Adopt and apply uniform, consistent, nondiscriminatory evaluation criteria to evaluate a tenant’s credit worthiness, criminal history, and rental history.
  • Treat tenants fairly and equally without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, disability, LGBTQ+ status, age (over 40), or whether they are a user, handler, or trainer of assistance animals for persons with disabilities.
  • Make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
  • Allow individuals with disabilities to make reasonable modifications to their rental units.
  • Be flexible with various types of lawful, verifiable income, including but not limited to Housing Choice Vouchers, Social Security Income, Social Security Disability Income, alimony, and child support.
  • Become familiar with your local fair housing group and reach out to them for technical assistance when you are unsure of how to handle a particular situation with potential fair housing implications. Fair housing groups exist to help those who feel they have been victims of housing discrimination and also to assist landlords with technical questions.
  • Avoid common property management mistakes by following the requirements of applicable laws. Communicate in a clear, calm, factual manner with tenants and applicants. Properly document conversations, agreements, breaches of the lease and damages. Consult with an attorney when necessary.
  • Many housing discrimination complaints and lawsuits can be avoided by employing good conflict resolution strategies and positive management approaches. Seek to understand before being understood. Cultivate trust with your tenants. Avoid using threats. Focus on the interests of both parties and don’t argue just to “win.” Stay objective. Be creative and work toward alternative solutions or compromises that benefit both parties when necessary.
As a housing provider, you need to be familiar with federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws.

Federal Fair Housing Law

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended, is known as the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act is the federal law that makes it illegal to discriminate in any housing-related transaction based on seven protected classes.

  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Sex(Sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity.)
  • Disability
  • Familial Status (Familial status includes the presence of minor children in a household, pregnant women, or anyone in the process of securing legal custody of a child. For exemptions to the familial status provision of the Fair Housing Act, see Housing For Older Persons)

State Fair Housing Law

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is the state law protecting consumers against housing discrimination and adds two additional protected classes: Age (over 40) and users, handlers, or trainers of assistance animals for persons with disabilities.

Local Fair Housing Laws

Municipalities across Pennsylvania have adopted local ordinances, which add additional protections that are not included under federal or state laws. At the time of printing, at least 50 municipalities and almost all of the major cities in Pennsylvania have adopted anti-discrimination ordinances which add additional protected classes. Some common additional protected classes include marital status, source of income, and military or veteran status. Check with your local government for more information specific to the municipalities in which you have rental properties.

Prohibited Conduct

Fair housing laws make it illegal to discriminate against anyone because they are a member of a protected class. Prohibited conduct can include any of the following:

  • Refusing to rent or sell housing because someone is a member of a protected class
  • Refusing to negotiate for the sale or rental of housing because someone is a member of a protected class
  • Making housing unavailable or denying that housing is available because someone is a member of a protected class
  • Setting different terms, conditions, or privileges for the sale or rental of housing, a mortgage loan, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, or any other housing transaction. This includes applying tenant screening criteria unequally to members of protected classes, requiring higher security deposits from members of protected classes, or terminating a lease because a tenant is a member of a protected class or associates with a member of a protected class.
  • Advertising in a discriminatory way including stating a limitation, preference, or bias for or against any protected class
  • Threatening or intimidating anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting anyone else in exercising their fair housing rights

Types of Housing Covered by the Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act cover all types of housing, including, but not limited to:
  • Apartments
  • Mobile Home Parks
  • Condominiums
  • Single Family Homes
  • Public Housing
  • Nursing Homes
  • Dormitories
  • Group Homes for People with Disabilities

More About Fair Housing