Federal law prohibits discrimination in the rental, sale, advertising and financing of housing on the basis of your race, color, religion, gender, national origin, family status, i.e., pregnancy or having custody of a child under age 18 or disability. Maryland and many of its local jurisdictions have at least similar laws, as well as additional protections.
The national policy against housing discrimination is defined in the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968. In addition, there are provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which the Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted as prohibiting “all racial discrimination, private as well as public, in the sale or rental of property.” Unlike the 1968 law, the 1866 law contains no exceptions and no limit on the amount of damages which can be awarded to a plaintiff.
Who is Protected?
The federal Fair Housing Act is contained in Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It was amended in 1974 and again in 1978. The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination against a person who falls in any of the following seven groups. Anyone treated unfairly because of: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, families with children and people with disabilities (handicap). These seven groups are considered “protected classes” under the Act and its amendments. "Protected classes" mean the categories of discrimination that are covered by the law.
Read the Law: The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (42 USC 3601, et seq.)
The courts have said that Maryland's law is "substantially equivalent" to the federal law. In two important respects, Maryland gives more protection. First, Maryland expands on the protected classes of the federal law. You cannot be discriminated against because of your marital status, gender identification or sexual orientation. Marital status is defined as “the state of being single, married, separated, divorced or widowed." "Sexual orientation" means the identification of an individual as to male or female homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality. Gender identity is defined to mean the gender related identity, appearance, expression, or behavior of a person, regardless of the person’s assigned sex at birth. 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, sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. However, they cannot discriminate against someone because of his/her race, color, religion, family status, national origin or handicap.
Local jurisdictions (such as the counties or towns) also protect all of the groups covered by federal and state law and often include additional categories such as age (in Baltimore City, 18 or older), sexual preference, occupation and source of income.
What is Prohibited?
The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to commit any of the following acts against a person who falls within any of the groups protected by the law.
- Sale or Rental of Residential Real Estate - Refuse to sell, rent or otherwise make unavailable or deny any dwelling; discriminate in the terms or conditions of sale or rental of a dwelling or in the provision of services or facilities. (Single sex housing is permitted, as an exception to this prohibition, in situations where sharing of living areas is involved.); or indicate that housing is not available when, in fact, it is.
- Advertising Residential Real Estate - Make, print, publish or cause to be made, printed or published, a notice, statement or advertisement relating to the sale or rental of housing that indicates a preference, limitation or discrimination.
- Block busting - Persuade or attempt to persuade, for profit, a person to sell or rent a dwelling by making representations about the present or future entry into the neighborhood of one or more persons in a protected class.
- Loans and Other Financial Assistance - Discriminate in the making or purchasing of loans or providing other financial assistance.
- Brokerage and Appraisal Services - Discriminate in the brokering or appraisal of residential real estate.
- Participation in Real Estate Organizations - Deny access to, or establish different terms and conditions for, membership or participation in any multiple listing service, real estate brokers’ organization or other service, organization or facility relating to the business of selling or renting of dwellings.
- Intimidation, Coercion and Threats - Intimidate, coerce, threaten or interfere with a person in one of the protected classes in enjoyment of rights conferred by the Fair Housing Act.
Special Provisions for People with Disabilities
Definition of Disability
The Fair Housing Act defines disability (handicap) as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s “major life activities”, a record of having such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. The law protects both the person with a disability and a person living with or intending to live with that person. It excludes people who are illegally using or addicted to drugs and other controlled substances.
Special Protections - In addition to providing people with disabilities all of the protections against housing discrimination that are provided to members of the other six protected classes, the following provisions of the Fair Housing Act provide important additional protection.
Read the Law: 42 USC 3602
The prohibition against discriminating in the terms and conditions of sale or rental, prohibits a landlord from asking any questions of a person with a disability than would be asked of any other applicant. A landlord may not, for example, inquire about the nature or severity of a person’s disability or ask whether that person is capable of living alone.
It is unlawful to refuse to make such reasonable changes in rules, policies, practices and services which may be necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to enjoy and use a dwelling. These “reasonable accommodations” include such things as making an exception to a “no pets” policy for a person who needs a service animal and providing a reserved, designated parking place for a person with a mobility impairment.
Reasonable Modifications - It is unlawful to refuse to permit a person with a disability to make, at his/her own expense, such reasonable changes in the premises as may be necessary to permit use and enjoyment of the premises. “Reasonable modifications” include such things as installing grab bars to facilitate use of bathroom facilities or the widening of a doorway to accommodate a wheelchair.
Read the Law: 42 USC 3604
Full Accessibility of “New” Multi-family Housing
Multi-family housing constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991 (i.e. buildings consisting of 4 or more units) must be fully accessible to people with disabilities. If a building has an elevator, all units must be accessible; if there is no elevator, only “ground floor” units must be accessible. “Accessible” means: 1) There must be an accessible building entrance on a accessible route; 2) Public and common use areas must be readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities; 3) All inside doors must be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair; 4) There must be an accessible route into and through the dwelling; 5) Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls must be accessible; 6) Bathroom walls must be reinforced to allow later installation of grab bars; and 7) Kitchens and bathrooms must have enough space to permit maneuvering in a wheelchair.
Read the Law: 42 USC 3604(F)
Discrimination against Families with Children
Definition of “Familial Status” - As used in the Fair Housing Act, the term “familial status” (often called “families with children”) refers to a parent or another person having legal custody of one or more individuals under the age of 18 years. It refers also to a person who is pregnant or in the process of getting legal custody of a minor child.
Families with children enjoy under the law the same protection against housing discrimination as other groups protected by the law. In only two instances, does the law permit, as exceptions, discrimination against families with children. Both exceptions pertain to so-called housing for older persons. Housing intended for and occupied solely by people 62 years of age or older and housing in which 80 percent of the units are intended for and occupied by at least one person who is 55 years of age or older do not need to comply with the law’s familial status provisions.
Discrimination against families with children manifests itself in many ways, the most common of which are in advertising (e.g. indications that rentals are for “no children” or “adults only”), restrictive occupancy standards that unreasonably limit the number of children who may occupy a given space, and steering of families with children to separate buildings or parts of buildings.
Exemptions to the Fair Housing Act
The four exemptions to the Fair Housing Act are:
- A single-family house sold or rented by the owner, provided the owner does not own more than three such single family houses at one time and provided also that the sale or rental is not advertised in a discriminatory manner and is done without the services of a real estate agent, broker or sales person. If the seller does not live in the house at the time of the rental or sale, or was not the most recent resident at the time of the rental or sale, only one sale of such a single-family house within any 24-month period is exempted.
- Dwelling units or rooms in a building of four or fewer units, provided the owner of the building occupies one of the units as his residence
- A dwelling owned or operated by a religious organization, or by a nonprofit organization owned or controlled by a religious organization which limits or gives preference in the sale, rental or occupancy to persons of the same religion, provided membership in the religion is not restricted on the basis of race, color or national origin.
- Lodging owned or operated by a private club as an incident to its primary purpose and not operated for a commercial purpose. Club members may be given preference, or occupancy may be limited to members, provided club membership is open to all without regard to race, color, religion, etc.
Enforcement Provisions and Penalties for Violations of the Law
The law provides several alternative methods of enforcement:
- Administrative Complaints - A person who believes that s/he has been the victim of housing discrimination may file a written complaint with the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) within one year after the discriminatory act occurred. The Secretary must inform the complainant of the choice of forums for resolving the dispute and if the state or local jurisdiction has a public agency certified to handle such complaints, the Secretary must refer the complaint to that agency.
The Secretary will try to mediate the dispute and reach a conciliation agreement with the parties. If necessary, the Secretary may ask the Attorney General to seek temporary relief through court action. Under certain conditions, either the aggrieved party or the respondent may choose to have the dispute heard by an Administrative Law Judge or in federal court. An Administrative Law Judge who finds that a respondent has committed a discriminatory housing act may impose a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for a first offense, up to $25,000 for a second offense within a five-year period, and up to $50,000 for a third offense within a seven-year period. If the dispute goes to federal court, the Attorney General will maintain the action on behalf of the aggrieved person. The aggrieved person may join the action and may be awarded reasonable attorney fees.
- Private Lawsuits - A person who believes that s/he has been the victim of housing discrimination may file a civil action in the United States District Court or State Court within two years after the discriminatory act occurred or ended, or after a conciliation agreement was breached, whichever occurs last, even if a complaint had been filed with HUD, provided that an Administrative Law Judge has not yet begun a hearing. A federal judge may grant whatever relief is necessary, including the award of actual and punitive damages, attorney fees and temporary or permanent injunctions.
The U.S. Attorney General may intervene in private lawsuits determined to be of general public importance.
- Lawsuits in “Pattern or Practice” Cases - The U.S. Attorney General may initiate a civil suit in any federal district court if s/he has reasonable cause to believe that a person has engaged in a “pattern or practice” of housing discrimination.
In any suit brought by the Attorney General, whether on his/her own initiative or by referral from the Secretary of HUD, the judge may award whatever relief is appropriate: a temporary or permanent injunction or other order, reasonable attorney fees and costs, money damages to any aggrieved person and “to vindicate the public interest”, a civil penalty of up to $50,000 for the first violation and up to $100,000 for any subsequent violation.