Federal, state, and local laws, notably the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended), protect tenants from illegal housing discrimination.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against tenants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including sexual harassment), familial status (including families with children under the age of 18 living with parents or being pregnant), and disability (both mental and physical). In addition, many state and local fair housing laws prohibit additional forms of discrimination, such as that based on marital status or sexual orientation.
When choosing tenants, a landlord can reject an applicant for valid business reasons such as insufficient income to pay the rent; past housing history (such as evictions or negative landlord references); convictions for criminal offenses (excluding convictions for past drug use); inability to pay the required security deposit; or poor credit. A landlord's standards for choosing tenants must be applied equally to all applicants.
Fair housing laws protect tenants at all stages—whether discrimination occurs at the application stage (a landlord may not set more restrictive standards for people of a certain race, for example) or at the end of a tenancy (it's illegal to terminate a lease or rental agreement for a discriminatory reason, such as a tenant's religion).
A tenant who feels that a landlord has violated fair housing law has two options: file a complaint or a lawsuit. In either case, don't delay: You have one year after the alleged discrimination to file a federal HUD complaint, and two years to file a lawsuit in federal court. (States may set shorter time limits.)
Start by contacting the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that enforces federal anti-discrimination law. If a landlord has violated state or local fair housing law, the local HUD office will refer you to the appropriate agency. HUD (as well as most state agencies) will investigate the complaint and either dismiss it or attempt to reach a compromise between you and the landlord. The compromise attempt (known as conciliation) might involve the landlord paying you a sum of money or agreeing to rent you an apartment. If conciliation doesn't work, the fair housing agency will hold an administrative hearing, which may involve a lengthy administrative process before a decision is reached.
You may sue the landlord (in federal or state court, depending on your case). You can do this even after filing a housing discrimination complaint (as long as you have not signed a conciliation agreement or are not involved in an administrative hearing process). If you want to sue your landlord, you will need an attorney experienced in representing tenants in housing discrimination lawsuits.
If you win the lawsuit, the court may award you monetary damages for your losses (such as having to pay more rent for a different rental unit) or compensation for the emotional distress you have suffered. Or the court may order the landlord to offer the rental to you. If a court finds the landlord guilty of discrimination, the court may order the landlord pay a civil penalty (up to $65,000) to the federal government. Other penalties may apply.
Learn more about Accepting or Rejecting Applicants.