Legal & Regulatory

Understanding Fair Housing Laws When Renting Out Your Home

Written By Melanie Kershaw

Last Updated Mar 31, 2024

A family of five and a small dog run happily into a new home among moving boxes. Families can not be discriminated against under Fair Housing Laws.

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Reviewing rental applications means putting people’s history and conduct under the microscope. But Fair Housing Laws put homeowners and their property management under scrutiny too. 

Tenant screening can be tricky business. You want the right person for your home, but using personal preferences could be illegal under The Fair Housing Act (FHA)

Intentional or not, discrimination could lead to hefty penalties — as much as $24,000 or more. To stay fair and inclusive, this quick guide will answer homeowner questions on how to keep in line with the FHA. 

How do Fair Housing Laws impact landlords?

Homeowners need to follow federal and state laws when renting. This means ensuring there is no different treatment to any applicant based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, national origin, or familial status (pregnancy or under 18s). These groups are ‘protected classes’. 

Each state also has their own rulings and many expand on these protections. For example, some include status as a senior, first responder or service member.

11 jurisdictions in the US also include eviction laws. In Seattle, you are not permitted to evict an educator or family during the school year. 

Other examples of discrimination for rental homes under Fair Housing Laws include:

  • Banning kids from shared facilities in an apartment block
  • Marketing your home as “in a safe Christian neighborhood” to attract someone on the basis of your preferred faith
  • Using different income standards or application fees for a person based on their ethnicity or race
  • Evicting a resident or their guest or harassing them to leave because you don’t agree with their beliefs
  • Setting restrictive occupancy limits, such as two-people in a two bedroom apartment to prevent families

The Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2023 is also in the Senate to expand protected classes. Stay current with 2024 rulings and find detailed examples of housing discrimination from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

What are the penalties for landlords under the Fair Housing Act in 2024? 

If a rental applicant believes you have discriminated against them, you could face:

  • A civil lawsuit
  • Action from an advocacy group
  • Fines from a government agency enforcing housing laws

The penalties can be severe. As of 2023, Fair Housing Act Civil Penalties can be up to $24,793 for a first offense. A second can be up to $61,982. This can climb as high as $123,965 for repeat violations.The court may also issue an injunction to prevent future violations. 

Can property managers be liable for discrimination against tenants? 

Yes, if it’s found that your real estate agent or property management company caused the FHA violation, they will face disciplinary action. This may include losing their license and professional accreditation. 

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How can I avoid discrimination when renting out my home?

The best way to avoid discrimination is to have fair and consistent practices in place. This is easier if you have a trusted partner that has the knowledge and resources to screen and vet applicants equally. 

If you are self-managing a rental home, use these five tips to avoid discrimination and bias. 

1. Get to know your local laws and any recent changes

While the FHA is a federal law, there are many local policies and ordinances that apply to rental housing. For example, in 2022 Alameda County was the first to pass a law banning landlords from conducting criminal background checks on applicants. 

In Seattle, the First-in-Time ordinance requires landlords to offer a rental agreement to the first qualified applicant who provides a complete application. 

In 2024, Fort Worth is considering ordinances prohibiting property owners and managers from refusing to accept housing vouchers, based on ‘source of income discrimination’, which also applies in New York and California.  

2. Stick to facts when advertising your home 

When marketing your rental home, avoid enticing your preferred applicant. Saying your home is “suited for couples only” would discriminate against a mother with a young child. Suggesting someone of Jewish faith would feel “uncomfortable” in your neighborhood is another way of trying to discriminate by discouraging applicants based on religion. This goes for open homes too. 

Play it safe by sticking with the facts that apply to everyone i.e. two bedrooms, one bath, proximity to shops and transport. 

3. Develop a consistent screening process and criteria

When vetting applicants, apply the same process to everyone. Develop a standard and avoid questioning race, sexual orientation or religious preferences. 

If you run a criminal background check, you must check everyone, not only people that “look suspicious”. Not checking someone with your preferred religious background could also discriminate against other applicants.

4. Develop consistent rental policies for adults and families

Consistency is important in lease agreements too. Any rules set should apply to everyone i.e. not banning families from shared spaces for having “too many kids”. 

Occupancy rules can also be discriminatory to families if too low. If you had a two-bedroom home it would be reasonable to restrict the occupancy to 4-6 people. Restricting to two people would be discriminatory, because it would prevent families from applying to rent your home.  

5. Make reasonable accommodations for accessibility

If you own a multi-unit dwelling, there are accessibility requirements outlined in the FHA.

For owners of single-family homes, you need to consider ‘reasonable modifications’. If someone with a hearing impairment asked to install a visual-alert doorbell, this would be a reasonable modification. Or if you have a “no pets” policy in place but a person with a disability requires use of an recognised assistance animal, they should be able to apply for an exemption. 

You can find more examples of reasonable accommodations and modifications here. 

Financial freedom and peace of mind

Renting out your home doesn’t have to be a headache, or put you at risk of legal repercussions. Belong has built the modern alternative to property management that puts people first, enabled by best-in-class technology and services. 

The mission of Belong is to create authentic belonging experiences, empowering residents to become homeowners and homeowners to become financially free. 

To learn more about how Belong is changing the rental experience to make it lovable, visit our homeowner's page and find out more about services in places like Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area and many more. 

Disclaimer: This article is not intended as legal advice. Your local city is the best place to find information on local ordinances that apply to you and your rental property. In an effort to flip outdated property management on its head, we prefer to use the terms ‘homeowner and resident’ over ‘landlord and tenant’. But as this article discusses legislation, we have stuck to the old monikers where necessary.

About the author

Melanie Kershaw

Mel Kershaw is a Content Lead at Belong. With an extensive background working with technology companies including Eventbrite and Yelp, she’s always looking for ways to create educational and informative articles that simplifies tech and solves problems for her audience.