The Fair Housing Act (FHA) allows a plaintiff to attack a housing policy that discriminates based on familial status. Specifically, the FHA prohibits landlords from discriminating against families with children under 18 years old. For instance, landlords are prohibited from locating families with children to a certain area within the apartment complex, limiting families such as these from accessing recreational services available to other tenants, etc. And during 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) made it very clear that discrimination of this type will not be tolerated.
For example, the DOJ entered consent orders in 2 cases where this type of discrimination occurred that resulted in each property owner having to pay over $30,000 to remedy the matters. In one case, a property owner in Nevada used advertisements that conveyed the message that the apartment complex preferred families without children, and then subsequently denied housing to a family with children that responded to one of the advertisements. This property owner was required to pay $24,000 to the victims for damages resulting from the discrimination, and $12,000 to the United States as a civil penalty. In another case, a property owner in Pennsylvania refused to rent one and two bedroom units to a family with children. As it turns out, this family was a DOJ fair housing tester, as we have written about before (We’re Going To Be Tested On This?!). This resulted in the DOJ ruling that the property owner discriminated against this family, and the owner was forced to pay $20,000 to the victims as damages and $10,000 to the United States as a civil penalty.
These cases further stress the importance of the leasing office staff members being knowledgeable of housing discrimination law. Property owners and managers must encourage their staff members to be welcoming to all, as we want to avoid situations where comments from a staff member may be perceived as discriminatory to families with children. Even if the staff member has the best intentions for these types of families in mind – such as advising families with children to live in units away from a busy street – these decisions should be left to the families to decide. Additionally, be mindful that fair housing testers are on the prowl searching for property owners and managers to bring FHA claims against.