People often wrongly assume that any discrimination by a landlord is illegal. “To discriminate” means simply to distinguish among available choices. Some of these distinctions are lawful; others are not. Thus, in deciding to whom to rent, a landlord may lawfully reject someone with a bad rental, credit or employment record or whose income suggests that s/he will be unable to pay the rent. A landlord may also refuse to rent to a person whose rental history suggests that s/he will not take care of the property or in other ways be irresponsible. These are all perfectly legal bases for discriminating among rental applicants and selecting those likely to be “good” tenants.
Unlawful discrimination is that which is not based upon merit but upon a person’s being one of a particular group to which a landlord, for whatever reason, does not want to rent.
Federal law protects seven groups (“protected classes”) from housing discrimination:
- national origin
- disability (physical or mental)
- family status (a family which includes minor children)
In addition, Maryland law prohibits discrimination based on marital status and the laws of various local jurisdictions may provide protection for other groups, such as sexual orientation, age, source of income and occupation. Baltimore City, for example, prohibits discrimination based on age (18 years old or older).
Federal law defines discrimination as:
- refusing to rent or sell
- setting different terms and conditions for sale or rental;
- falsely denying that housing is available for rent or sale;
- publishing discriminatory ads
If a landlord or rental agent does or says something which suggests that s/he has refused to rent or has falsely stated that nothing is available because of your race, color, religion, sex or national origin, you may have been the victim of illegal housing discrimination.
Blatant refusal to rent because of race, color, etc. seldom occurs these days. Unlawful discrimination usually assumes more subtle forms.
- If, for example, you inquire about renting at an apartment development and are told nothing is available but referred to another development, this may be illegal racial steering. Similarly, if you ask about renting in a particular building but are told about units available in other buildings, this could also be racial steering.
- If you are looking for a 3-bedroom apartment you and your four minor children and are told that the development has a policy of placing all families with children on the first floor or in a separate building, this could be unlawful discrimination against families with children. Or, if you are told that the landlord has a policy of no more than one child per bedroom, that policy may also be an illegal form of discrimination.
In addition to the other protections provided, the federal Fair Housing Act contains special protections for people with disabilities:
- Landlords are required to make any reasonable exceptions to their usual rules, policies, practices, services needed to permit a person with a disability to use and enjoy his home. These are called “reasonable accommodations” and must be made at the landlord’s expense. They include such things as making an exception to a “no pets” policy for a person who needs a service animal or providing a reserved, designated parking place for a person with a mobility impairment. The kinds of “reasonable accommodations” which may be requested would depend upon individual need and limited only by the “reasonableness” of the request. Whether an accommodation would involve the expenditure of a large amount of money or cause undue inconvenience for other tenants are the kinds of things that would determine the “reasonableness” of a particular request.
- Landlords are also required to allow a tenant, at tenant’s own expense, to make such “reasonable modifications” in the premises as are necessary to permit him to live in and enjoy his dwelling place. These include such things as widening a doorway to accommodate a wheelchair, lowering kitchen cabinets to make them accessible to a person in a wheelchair, installing grab bars in a bathroom or constructing a ramp to provide access to an entrance.
- Apartments and condominiums constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, must be designed and constructed so as to be fully accessible to people with disabilities. If there is no elevator, all ground floor units must be accessible. If there is an elevator, all units must be accessible. In addition, all public and common use areas must be accessible, there must be an accessible building entrance on an accessible path, doorways must be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, environmental controls must be accessible, and kitchens and bathrooms must be usable.
Read the Law: The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (42 USC 3601)
The Maryland Fair Housing law, was first enacted in 1971. It states that it is Maryland's policy “to provide for fair housing throughout the State of Maryland, to all its citizens, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, marital status, or handicap; and to that end to prohibit discriminatory practices with respect to residential housing by any person or group of persons ....” (Section 19)
The courts have said that Maryland's law is “substantially equivalent” to the federal law. In two important respects, Maryland gives more protection. You cannot be discriminated against because of your marital status. This is defined as “the state of being single, married, separated, divorced or widowed”. In addition, there is a limit to the exemption for rooms or units in a dwelling in which the owner occupies a unit as his/her principal residence. In Maryland, these owners may turn down someone based on sex or marital status. However, they cannot discriminate against someone because of his/her race, color, religion, family status, national origin or hardship.
Enforcement procedures and penalties in the Maryland law are also similar to those in federal law. The Maryland Human Relations Commission is empowered to enforce this law. The commission may help to resolve disputes, conduct investigations, hold hearings, issue orders, award damages and civil penalties and seek the help of the court to enforce its orders.
The Maryland fair housing law also provides that any county or other local government may enact laws on any subject covered by the State law. However, these local laws cannot allow anything that is prohibited by State law. Read the Law: MD Code State Govt. §§ 20-101, 20-704, 20–705