Generally, a landlord is free to rent his or her premises to anyone he or she chooses. The landlord does not have that same freedom if the housing is part of a federally-subsidized complex or the property is privately owned by a landlord who owns more than four units. The landlord can only refuse to rent his premises to a prospective tenant if the landlord has a tangible reason that is non-discriminatory.
A landlord can refuse to rent his premises to a person who is not financially stable or someone who has a poor credit record or a poor rental history. A landlord can also refuse to rent to persons who refuse to abide by the landlord’s reasonable rules. Reasonable rules might include rules against having pets on the leased premises or prohibiting noise during certain nighttime hours. However, the rules are not reasonable if they do not apply to all tenants equally.
Federal Anti-discrimination Laws
Federal laws were enacted in response to a pattern of housing segregation that was made possible by a patchwork quilt of varying state laws. The Federal Fair Housing Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibit discrimination against tenants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status (number of children), or mental or physical disability. The Act applies to all federal government housing as well as housing that is financed by government funds. Included in that housing is that which is bought, rented, or otherwise obtained through the use of federal funds.
The Act prohibits a landlord from taking any actions for discriminatory reasons. Prohibited conduct can include refusing to deal, using discriminatory terms and advertising, making false representations that a dwelling is unavailable, setting restrictive standards for certain tenants, or adopting terms and conditions that are inconsistent with those applied to other tenants.
As to disabled tenants, a landlord may violate the Act if he fails to accommodate the tenant’s disability by allowing a guide or other service animal. Other federal remedies may be available under the Americans with Disabilities Act. All 50 states have laws that prohibit such discrimination.
If a tenant believes that the federal fair housing laws have been violated, he may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) within one year of the alleged discriminatory act. HUD will investigate and appoint a mediator, if appropriate. If a tenant believes that a state housing law has been violated, he may file a complaint with the agency that is charged with enforcing the state law. In either case, a tenant may file a civil discrimination suit in state or federal court to recover damages suffered for being wrongfully denied housing. In some cases, the tenant may also be entitled to damages for emotional distress