The Fair Housing Act (the “Act”) was introduced in the United States in 1968 to guarantee equal rights to rent or buy a dwelling – such as a house or an apartment – for all. Originally prohibiting housing discrimination or tenant screening on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin, over the years other groups have gained protection under the Act. Today, it is illegal to refuse to sell or rent a property to any person because of race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. While the Fair Housing Act is a piece of legislation operating on the federal level, the State of Florida fully adopted it, making it a part of the state law as well.

According to Florida Fair Housing Laws, everyone who applies for a lease agreement or seeks to purchase real estate must be given the same consideration and treated fairly. While some restrictions and requirements on prospective tenants may be legal, landlords and property owners may at times inadvertently engage in actions that are tantamount to discrimination and put them in violation of the fair housing laws. In this article, we explain how to avoid that and ensure compliance with the Fair Housing Act.

Classes Protected Under the Act

As mentioned above, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of a prospective tenant’s or property buyer’s race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. The definition of race, color, religion, and sex are straightforward and do not need further explanation. However, a good understanding of what is meant by disability and familial status can help avoid any potential violation of the Act.

Familial status is defined as “one or more individuals (who have not attained the age of 18 years) being domiciled with a) a parent or another person having legal custody of such individual or individuals; or b) the designee of such parent or other person having such custody, with the written permission of such parent or other person.” What this means in practice is that a refusal to rent or sell a property to a family with children, or to a pregnant woman, simply because they have kids – as well as different treatment of the tenants/buyers based on this factor – may constitute a violation of the Act.

Disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.” It is important to note that under this definition and its current understanding, the use of, or an addiction to, illegal substances doesn’t constitute a disability.  

Unlawful Actions

Avoiding discrimination of the classes mentioned in the Fair Housing Act means that a landlord or property owner cannot treat their prospective tenants or buyers differently on the basis of the race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. This may include:

  • refusing to rent or sell a property
  • providing different rental/sale terms, conditions, or privileges
  • advertising indicating preference
  • interfering with a tenant’s enjoyment or exercising their housing rights as well as coercion, intimidation, or threatening

Lawful Requirements

Ensuring compliance with the Fair Housing Act doesn’t mean that landlords and property owners cannot set some requirements for the prospective tenants or buyers. The key here is consistency – the same standards must apply to all potential applicants. Some of the reasonable requirements may include:

  • meeting a minimum credit score
  • meeting a minimum requirement with regard to income and time of employment
  • no criminal record
  • no prior evictions or foreclosures

Of course, the law continues to evolve, and the Act is the source of the recent influx of emotional support animal litigation.  Further, HUD has published opinions regarding the legality of utilizing criminal background checks in tenant screenings. What was once a clear issue has become murky and gray based on HUD’s insistence that these matters be reviewed on a “case-by-case” basis.

Ensure Compliance – Contact a Lawyer

If you are a landlord or property owner in Florida, you need to have a proper and lawful screening process in place for your prospective tenant. A proper screening process may help filter out irresponsible tenants who could jeopardize the status of your property, as well as your finances.

Nevertheless, violating the Fair Housing Act, even inadvertently, can lead to litigation and fines. That is why it is so important to consult an experienced real estate lawyer to ensure that your screening process doesn’t violate any of the aspects of the Act.

Atlas Law is one of the few law firms in the state of Florida that has successfully defended a landlord in a Federal jury trial regarding the removal of an alleged emotional support animal.  If you feel that your screening process needs a review from an attorney or if you are involved in litigation over perceived Fair Housing Act violation, contact us immediately. Call us at 813.241.8269 or reach out to speak with Brian Chase directly at [email protected].