Federal Fair Housing Act Explained in Plain English

Knowing the Fair Housing Act is essential if you're selling or renting out property in the United States. Learn how to avoid buyer and tenant discrimination with our plain English guide to federal fair housing laws.

Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 - The Important Basics

The federal fair housing laws were passed in 1968 with the purpose of protecting tenants and buyers from discrimination. To be more precise, it forbids tenant discrimination by landlords and buyer discrimination by sellers due to race, color, religion, sex and nationality.

The Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988 expanded this law to cover the disabled and families with children as well.

The HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) is responsible for enforcing this Act.

This Act applies to almost all residential properties that are sold or rented out in the United States. There are two types of properties that are exempted from federal fair housing laws:

  • Owner-occupied dwellings with four or less units (Mrs. Murphy exemption)
  • Single family housing sold or rented without a broker

*Even with their exemption status, they're still not allowed to advertise (or state) any preference or limitation based on race, color, religion, sex, nationality, family status or handicap.

What is Prohibited by the Federal Fair Housing Act?

You are not allowed to take the following actions based on someone's race, color, religion, sex, nationality, family status or disability:

  • Refuse someone as a tenant or buyer

  • Set different terms and conditions for sales and leases

  • Provide different housing services or facilities

  • Lie that the housing is unavailable for rent or sale

  • Advertise (or state) any preference or limitation based on race, color, religion, sex nationality, family status or handicap.

What Happens When a Tenant or Buyer Files a Complaint?

Any tenant or buyer (complainant) who feels that they were discriminated can file a complaint against the landlord or seller (respondent). This is what happens:

  1. The tenant or buyer files a complaint with HUD.

  2. HUD will investigate and decide if housing discrimination had indeed taken place. If yes, HUD will accept the complaint. Otherwise, HUD will close the case.

  3. If HUD accepts the complaint, a formal complaint form will be mailed to the complainant. This form has to be signed and returned to HUD. HUD will also send the respondent a written notice stating that a fair housing complaint has been filed against him or her. Upon receiving this notice, the respondent will have 10 days to respond to the complaint.

  4. An investigation will be launched by HUD - Actions taken may include interviewing all parties involved, checking relevant paperwork and conducting site visits. HUD will also try to get both parties to solve their dispute peacefully and sign a conciliation agreement that will close the case.

  5. If the HUD investigation find the respondent has violated the Federal Fair Housing Act, it will charge him or her and a HUD judge will be appointed hear the case. The HUD judge can fine a first time offender up to $11,000 per violation and award the complainant damages plus attorneys fees.

  6. Either party can also choose to have the case heard in a federal court by the Department of Justice instead.

NEXT: Fair Housing Act Amendments - Avoiding Discrimination of The Disabled and Families with Children