One of the most important functions of federal fair housing laws is to prevent racial discrimination in the rental, sale, and financing of apartments and houses. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) is the federal agency responsible for creating national policy and programs to enforce fair housing laws. In addition to enforcement of fair housing laws on racial discrimination, HUD has many programs directed towards vulnerable populations; including people with disabilities, the elderly, the homeless, and the working poor.
Race Discrimination and the Fair Housing Act
Congress enacted the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in order to promote equal access to housing opportunities. The Fair Housing Act (along with its amendments) states that property owners, financial institutions, and landlords may not discriminate on the basis of race and national origin (the Act also prohibits discrimination based on sex, religion, family status, disability, and more).
Specifically, property owners, financial institutions, and landlords may not take the following action (or inaction) based on race of the actual or potential buyer, tenant, or applicant:
- Refusing to rent or sell housing;
- Refusing to negotiate for housing;
- Making housing unavailable;
- Providing different terms to different people;
- Setting different conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a property;
- Denying access to or membership in a facility or service related to the sale or rental of housing;
- Imposing different rates and terms on a loan;
- Refusing to make a mortgage loan; and
- Discriminating in appraising property.
Almost all forms of housing are covered by the Fair Housing Act. There are, however, several exceptions to these prohibitions. Generally, owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members do not have to comply with the Act.
If You Have Experienced Race Discrimination in Housing
There is a process established for individuals who feel they have suffered race discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. HUD has a Housing Discrimination Complaint Form available to individuals who wish to register a complaint against a property owner. This form is available from a local HUD office (get more information here). The complaint should include your name and address, the name and address of the person your complaint is against, the address of the property involved, a brief description of the alleged violations, and the date on which the violation occurred.
After the complaint is received, HUD will determine whether your state or local agency has the same powers as HUD, and refer the case to the local agency if they are competent to act on the complaint. If HUD retains the case, they will conduct an investigation and determine whether there are grounds to believe that the Fair Housing Act has been violated. If reasonable grounds exist, HUD will try to reach an agreement with the violator. If an agreement can be reached, HUD will not pursue further action.
Your Right to be Represented by Counsel
If necessary, the case may be heard in an administrative hearing at a local HUD office, or before a similar local agency. If your case goes to an administrative hearing you have the right to be represented. You may choose to be represented by a HUD attorney or you may seek legal counsel on your own.
At the administrative hearing, the administrative law judge will determine whether you are entitled to actual damages, including humiliation, pain and suffering. You may also qualify for equitable relief (non-financial awards), which may include the following: requiring that housing be made available to you; ordering that the violator pay a civil penalty to the federal government; or ordering the payment of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. Furthermore, you are entitled to file suit in federal district court or state court within two years of any violation. You are entitled to bring a suit if you have not signed a conciliation agreement and an administrative law judge has not started a hearing.