A cheeky, practical guide to recognizing housing discrimination

August 10 | Guest post by Rachel Ryan
Dinosaurs Against Discrimination keychain by TheBlackbirdBijou

Imagine filling out a rental application, ticking a box indicating your religion or whether you have a disability, thinking nothing of it, and moving on. And later, you find out your application has been rejected, even though you've met all the financial requirements advertised by the renter.

Unfortunately, not all discrimination is overt, and seeming innocuous questions about your faith, marital status, or even pets (to name a few) have been used as grounds for discrimination. Familiarizing yourself with your rental rights and what to look out for, before and after the renting process, will save you future hassle, grief, and even litigation, helping you land a home where you aren't treated as a second-class citizen.

Although the federally mandated Fair Housing Act provides comprehensive framework curbing housing and rental discrimination, every renter should be aware of these five signs your rental application is discriminatory, and how you can combat it…

How many kids do you have?

Inquiring into your familial status is off-limits. It doesn't matter that your landlord may not want a crying baby waking them up in the middle of the night or want kids screaming at all hours. It's your goddamn right. Asking about the ages of your children, how many you have, or any other information can provide a landlord grounds for discriminating and such information should be left blank on the application. Be wary of the landlords who have tried to circumvent this practice by assuming you have children and asking for their identifying information in the application.

Have you ever been arrested?

Although a landlord is entitled to inquire about your past criminal convictions, they are not allowed to ask whether you have been arrested. (Don't worry, that time the local town police officer picked you up and later let you go for sculling tallboys in the parking lot of your local Denny's isn't searchable by your future landlord.) An arrest is nothing more than a custodial police detention where police had probable cause to believe a crime was committed. Understand that unless an arrest is followed by a conviction, it is a mere accusation and has no bearing on a person's innocence or guilt. Erroneous and improper arrests occur every day, so steer clear of a landlord who illegally screens you on unfounded accusations.

What's your religion?

Seemingly harmless questions, such as, "What holidays do you observe?" or "What church do you go to?" violate the Fair Housing Act. Your faith, or lack thereof, is not measurable, objective criteria by which a landlord may screen you. Landlords however, are not required to accommodate for specific religious practices. If a landlord has a uniform set of rules, applicable to all tenants, prohibiting candles on the property, regardless of religion, that is legal and indisputable. But, if a landlord denies you a housing opportunity because you wear a pasta strainer on your head and is worried you may be a liability living next to a tomato canning plant, then this is grounds for violation under federal law.

Do you use a service dog?

Discrimination against mental or physical disabilities is prohibited under the Fair Housing Act. Although a landlord may not intend to discriminate based on a tenant's disabilities, and may sincerely have their best interests at heart, once an uneven playing field is created, so is discriminatory impact. For example, a building may have poor wheelchair ramp access, and a landlord may suggest a different building to better suit a tenant's needs. Although this seems innocent enough, a landlord's primary concern is treating everyone uniformly and as able-bodied persons. Also, keep in mind that pet prohibitions do not apply to service animals, so Milo and Otis are both welcome as long as they are for disability purposes.

A landlord may however ask disabled applicants whether they:

  • Are able to meet the minimum tenancy requirements
  • Abuse or are addicted to any illegal substances
  • Qualify for a rental unit that is offered on priority basis for those with disabilities
  • Qualify for a rental unit offered only for persons with a disability
  • Are able to show proof of disability, in certain cases where a landlord is figuring out the logistics of accommodations.

Why is my interest rate higher than hers?

Once a renter has made it through the screening process, it is still important to stay vigilant in regards to bank lending. Reverse redlining occurs when lenders or insurers target protected classes by charging exorbitant loans and interest rates. Higher annual percentage rates against minorities and other protected classes translate into housing discrimination and and disrupt the core meaning of "fair economy." Such practices carry heavy consequences, for example; racially homogenous neighborhoods, high default on mortgage payments, social decay, and a perpetual cycle of poverty and financial insecurity.

So how do you combat it?

I'll address that in Part Two! For now, digest these tips and let's talk about your own real life experiences in the comments…

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  1. While I understand the kid thing, I also don't understand the kid thing. It seems like in that regard the renter has all the rights and the landlord has none. My long term plan, if/when I inherit my parents' house, is to turn it into a rental property. I freely admit that I would prefer not to rent to families with children because I feel that there would be a higher risk of property damage and noise complaints from other tenants. In fact, a friend of mine recently moved because a family with children moved in above him and he couldn't take living underneath the noise of toddlers running around and a screaming infant.
    I guess it just irritates me that on this issue it doesn't seem fair to both the landlord and the renter.

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