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Understanding the Protected Classes Under the Fair Housing Act | Brian Chase - Atlas Law

Landlords are subject to a wide range of regulations and laws, including federal, state, and local. The Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) is a federal law that strives to eliminate discrimination against tenants.

An Overview of the Fair Housing Act

Prior to the Fair Housing Act, discrimination was perceived as a rampant problem for those renting or purchasing a home. The goal of the Fair Housing Act is to prevent landlords from discriminating against current, future, or prospective tenants because of specific protected characteristics or attributes.

Protected Classes

Currently, the Fair Housing Act protects against discrimination based on seven different categories:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Familial status (refers to having a child, being pregnant, or being in the process of adopting a child)

The FHA forbids discrimination against tenants based on characteristics included in the list above. This does not mean that a tenant cannot be turned away for other reasons. For example, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a disabled individual who has an emotional support animal that exceeds the weight or breed restriction for the community. However, a housing provider can refuse to rent to a disabled person with an emotional support animal if the person does not have a steady source of income or has a criminal background that is unacceptable (please be sure your criminal background check policy is not in violation of the FHA before denying due to a criminal background).

Preventing Legal Issues

The key to avoiding lawsuits based on FHA discrimination is having a clear screening and tenant selection process. Having a documented screening process that you follow for every single tenant and every single vacancy can be strong evidence against claims of discrimination. You should be very careful about what you say in housing ads, as well as what you say to prospective tenants on the phone or in person. Anything that implies discrimination—even if it’s an unintentional implication—could put you at risk. Working with an attorney with experience in landlord/tenant issues is one way to ensure that your rental language and advertising is in compliance.

Avoid Overcompensating for the FHA

The consequences of an FHA violation can be substantial for a landlord, so it should come as no surprise that many overcompensate while trying to avoid discrimination claims. Consider, again, the example above. A landlord might choose to rent to a disabled person with a dog that exceeds the weight or breed restrictions even though that individual has an unacceptable credit rating or a criminal background. This, too, could result in a violation of the FHA. Courts have held that landlords are discriminating against other prospective tenants by favoring the tenant in question and ignoring information that would otherwise disqualify the tenant from renting.  This is why a uniform tenant screening process is so important.  

Prevention is the best way to avoid issues with tenants or prospective tenants. The team at Atlas Law has extensive experience litigating difficult Fair Housing Act cases throughout the state of Florida—call 813-241-8269 to discuss your legal needs.