If you are looking for a new place to live, then you likely are going to be looking at advertisements for new places to live. While landlords are not allowed to discriminate when announcing rental vacancies, it can happen. So let’s take a look at what those discriminatory ads might look like and then talk about what you can do about it.
Families with Children (“Familial Status”)
In the old days, it was not uncommon for an apartment complex to state in an advertisement, “Sorry, no children!” But in 1988 familial status was added to the list of protected categories under the Fair Housing Act. Why? Because families with young children were having trouble finding places to live. Also, landlords were using the excuse of having children to discriminate against people because of race or national origin. For example, if the landlord didn’t like a certain race, then it was much easier for the landlord to discriminate against those people based on their race by simply claiming that the landlord normally would rent to them, but since they had young children, the landlord wasn’t going to rent to them. Obviously, this was a problem that needed to be fixed, so Congress added the category of “familial status” to try to stop both problems.
What is “familial status” anyway? It’s a status. For example, what is your marital status? Are you single or married? What is your employment status? Are you working or not? When it comes to familial status, people who live together are either “familial” or not. Simply put, to fall within the category of “familial status,” the people who live together must consist of: a child (under 18 years old) living with either: 1) a parent or parents; 2) a lawful guardian; or 3) someone who has written permission to have that child live with them (think of someone like a grandparent). Let me give you a few examples: 1) a 14-year old daughter living with her mom would fall within “familial status.” 2) three college students living together would not fall within the classification of “familial status,” for none of them is a child. 3) parents living with their 18-year old son would not be classified under “familial status” because their son is over 18 years old. Normally, it is easy to determine if a group of people living together falls within the protected category, but some living arrangements can be messy.
Ads stating things such as, “ideal for working professionals,” arguably indicate a preference for adults only. So, too, do ads that declare an apartments is “perfect for single or couple.” The implication? The apartment is not perfect for a family with children. Finally, ads that proclaim: “nice, quiet, mature, neighborhood” seem okay at first blush. But when you start to think about the ad, “quiet” and “mature” arguably indicate that children are not welcome.
Ads stating a preference for one race or another are clearly unlawful. But these types of ads can be blatant (“no blacks”) or subtle (“nice, Asian community”). Either way, they are unlawful.
Advertisements that openly express a preference (“Christian couple preferred”), limitation (“Muslims only”), or discrimination (“no Jews”) are all illegal. Likewise, ads that describe current residents (“nice Jewish community”) or the neighborhood (“near the mosque”) may be illegal, for they seem to indicate a preference for a certain type of tenant.
When it comes to advertisements that state a preference for one sex over the other, then there is an exception. But first, let’s see what a discriminatory ad based on sex might look like. An ad that states “female preferred” is a classic example of a discriminatory ad.
But if the vacancy that is being announced is one for a roommate, then it is okay for the ad to limit applicants to one sex. It is not illegal for a person to look for a roommate of a certain sex. This makes sense. Imagine two young, college women who rent an apartment off campus. One of the women graduates and the other woman wants a new roommate. She is not required to rent to the first person who meets the qualifications (sorry, guys). She can lawfully choose to rent only to another woman.
In this day and age, national origin has become a hot political issue. Thus ads that state things such as “no immigrants” or “no foreigners” or “Mexicans preferred” will likely be deemed illegal by courts. Advertisements that appear in a language other than English may be illegal because they are indirectly indicating a preference for someone who speaks that language. For example, if an ad only is in Korean, then it may be proved that the landlord illegally preferred Koreans over other tenants. Also, ads that describe current residents (“quiet Korean community”) or the neighborhood (“predominantly Chinese neighborhood”) may be illegal.
When the Fair Housing Act was amended in 1988 to add familial status as a protected category, Congress also added the category of handicap as a protected category. Nowadays, it is more common to use the term “disabled” instead of “handicap,” but the technical category is handicap.
At any rate, advertisements that state such things as “no wheelchairs” or “able-body people only” or “must be able to live independently” are unlawful. Likewise, ads that describe the apartment complex as unable to accommodate people with disabilities (e.g., “units are not accessible”, “no pets, even seeing eye dogs”) are also unlawful.
If you have run into a discriminatory ad, then what can you do about it? First, you should report the unlawful ad to publisher of that ad (whether that be Craigslist, an internet provider, social media, newspaper), so that it can be removed.
Next, you might want to complain to a local fair housing agency, so that it can investigate the matter. The fair housing agency may have had other complaints about this landlord, so it may decide to pursue an action against the landlord.
Finally, Thomas Jefferson said, “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.” Put simply, unless potential tenants do something about landlords who make discriminatory ads, then they will continue to do so. If you want to do something, then you may choose to file a claim with HUD (202) 708-1112 or California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) (800) 884-1684. Or you can contact a fair housing attorney to assist you in filing a claim of housing discrimination against the landlord. The choice is yours.