A Landlord's Guide to Fair Housing Guidelines for Apartments

It’s no exaggeration to say that there are many different laws that landlords need to be familiar with. From following rental agreement laws to understanding state-based security deposit rules, keeping up with laws is sure to become part of your job while managing rental property.

One of the most serious sets of laws that you need to become familiar with are the fair housing rental laws. Taken from the Fair Housing Act, these laws provide structure and guidelines to what types of information you can and cannot use when choosing which renters to allow to live at your property.

Today, we’ll be working on getting a deeper understanding of fair housing laws for apartments. Fair housing guidelines for rentals like apartments provide the structure that you need to choose tenants; we’ll teach you how to efficiently choose the best tenants while working within the structure of those guidelines.

A Table Of Contents For Fair Housing Rental Laws

What Is The Fair Housing Act?

If you haven’t heard of the Fair Housing Act before, there is still a chance that you have an understanding of what it requires of landlords. Most landlords know that they cannot discriminate against rental applicants, but some landlords do not know what this means on a more precise level.

HUD, also known as the Depart of Housing and Urban Development, put together the Federal Fair Housing Laws in 1968. Since that time, these fair housing rental laws have functioned to protect renters from being illegally denied access to housing because of their race, religion, and a number of other factors. 

Specifically, the Fair Housing Act protects applicants from being discriminated for the following classes:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Ethnic background
  • National origin
  • Familial status
  • Gender
  • Mental disability
  • Physical disability

When you are gathering information about rental applicants, you are not legally permitted to ask for any of this information. If you have any knowledge about these classes, you cannot use that information to make your decision about whether or not to allow them to rent your property.

In addition to working on the Fair Housing Act, HUD also manages the HUD housing program, known as Section 8, which helps those in need get housing assistance. Find out more about Section 8 housing here!

State Additions

In addition to following federal rules laid out by HUD about housing, many states have their own set of protected classes that you must also take into consideration when screening tenants. In Michigan, for example, you are not legally permitted to take height or weight into consideration when screening tenants.

Check your state and local laws for additional protections before you start the screening process!

Fair Housing Guidelines For Apartments: Screening

Fair Housing Guidelines For Apartments: Screening

Now that you have a little bit of background about how the Fair Housing Act came to be, let’s talk about how these fair housing laws for apartments will affect the screening process.

The key point to remember is that you cannot ask tenants about any of the protected areas. This means that your application should include no sections that ask for religion, race, or other protected class information. Even if you vow not to use that information when making your decision, collecting it is still illegal.

Those protected classes cannot be used to evict any tenants, either. In fact, using that information in any way while working as the tenant’s landlord would quality as a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

We will go through a more detailed example of how to go about screening your tenants in the sections below.

What If You Break The Rules?

You might be wondering what will happen if you do not follow the guidelines laid out by the Fair Housing Act. Whether done intentionally or not, there is a hefty fine that must be paid by landlords and property managers that discriminate against potential tenants for these protected classes.

The fee increases yearly; check out the trending rates below:

Year First Offense Second Offense Third Offense
2016 $19,787 $49,467 $98,935
2017 $20,111 $50,276 $100,554
2018 $20,521 $51,302 $102,606
2019 $21,039 $52,596 $105,194

As you can see, the charges that could be laid against you if you break the rules of the Fair Housing Act are no joke! Discrimination is a serious crime. As a landlord, it is your responsibility to make decisions based on a tenant’s merits and rental history, not on their status as a member of a protected class.

The Complaint Process

Tens of thousands of complaints about landlord behavior are filed each year. Be sure that your name doesn’t end up involved in any of these investigations by being careful throughout your screening process. 

If a complaint is filed about you, the appropriate agency (either HUD or a state housing agency) will begin to investigate the claim. Investigations can take several months and will typically involve a caseworker gathering information from both sides.

Usually, reconciliation is reached between the landlord and the applicant or tenant through the process. Sometimes it is necessary to hold a hearing during which a judge decides whether or not discrimination has occurred.

It is also possible for a tenant or applicant to take a landlord to federal court instead of the housing committee’s as the Fair Housing Act is federal law. A tenant has up to two years from the date of alleged discrimination to take the case to court.

How To Screen For The Best Tenants

How To Screen For The Best Tenants

With the base of knowledge that you now have about the Fair Housing Act, let’s expand to get a complete look at how you can go through the entire screening process successfully without asking for or needing any of that information.

Screening tenants carefully will help you ensure that you don’t break any rules while also ensuring that you find the best tenants possible!

1. Advertise The Property

The first step in bringing in the best tenants is to make sure that you advertise the property with very detailed information and clear prices.

When you’re putting out information about the rental, include all of the following:

  • Rent
  • Address
  • Included amenities
  • Predicted utility costs
  • Pet and smoking policy
  • Non-negotiables

By including as much information as possible from the very beginning, you’ll be able to discourage any tenants that don’t fit your search criteria from applying at all. This means that those that cannot afford the rental or agree to your policies will not waste your time (or theirs) with an application.

2. Application: Rental & Employment History

Be sure that your application includes sections to collect the applicant’s rental and employment history. Once you have this information, you can verify their current employment as well as check in with their previous landlord about their reliability as a renter.

Having the applicant’s history in these areas on file is also an important factor to decide if their credit score is good enough to be worth the risk. If a tenant has a reliable history but their credit score isn’t in your ideal range, you may be able to determine that they are worth the risk thanks to the extra information.

3. Call All References

The next thing that you need to do is call all personal and employment references that the applicant includes on their application! Gathering this information and not using it is a waste. If you have the means to confirm that the applicant is a good renter, you should pull out all the stops and call up those references to confirm.

4. Run All Checks And Approvals

Once you’ve determined that the tenant is a good fit based on their application and background, you should run the basic background and credit checks that can help you get a final picture of the applicant’s responsibility.

If you aren’t sure of the best way to do this, using a reliable site like RentPrep can help you easily organize and screen through these checks in legal and efficient ways. Once you’ve made it through this step, you can choose which renter to go with from your final, remaining applicants!

Recent Changes To HUD Rules

While the general rules of the Fair Housing Act have been in place since the 1960s, there have been modifications, newsletters, and suggestions through the years that you as a landlord should be aware of.

In April 2016, HUD released a memo that aimed to further clarify the Fair Housing Policies in place and how they should be used regarding those with criminal records.

What Did The Memo Say?

The Fair Housing Laws do not specifically address applicants that have criminal records. Some cities and areas have their own laws that give added protection to those with a record, but there are no national laws which give renters with criminal records any type of protection from application discrimination.

The position expressed by HUD in the memo focused primarily on these items:

  • Landlords need to consider that, including a blanket “no arrest or conviction rule” is thereby discriminating against LatinX and African American applicants because the arrest rates of these races are higher than other races.
  • Landlords should consider applicants that have an arrested-without-conviction status on their background check. This status means that they were released without any proven wrongdoing, so they should not be treated as a potential threat.
  • Any arrested-without-conviction statuses should be viewed as a non-issue if there is no other criminal history involved.
  • Landlords should always consider how long it has been since any criminal convictions and how serious those convictions were before making their decision about renting to an applicant.

The memo concludes with this point: Landlords are legally permitted to make an application decision based on an applicant’s criminal record, but that decision must be made to protect the safety of their property, the neighborhood, and the landlord themselves.

Why Was This Memo Released?

Landlords might be wondering why this memo was released at all. After all, it does not change the Fair Housing Laws; it only gives suggestions to landlords that they can choose to follow or not.

In 2015, there was a US Supreme Court Case, which showed that landlords were able to secretly discriminate against certain races by including a wide range of anti-arrest and anti-criminal record rules in their tenant applications.

After the case concluded, HUD clarified their position about criminal records:

  • It is reasonable for a landlord to deny a rental applicant that was convicted of fighting with his neighbor two years ago.
  • It is not reasonable for a landlord to deny an application because the applicant was convicted of theft more than 10 years ago with no other arrests or convictions.

The Takeaway

The most important thing to take away from this 2016 memo is that you, as a landlord, need to be mindful of circumstances when considering an applicant with any arrests or convictions. Arrests are suspicions, not convictions. Denying an applicant for an arrest may be severe if they have no other issues.

Be sure that you consider the criminal record of all applicants fairly and carefully to give them a chance at finding the housing that they need!

Why You Should Always Screen Your Applicants

Screening applicants with the fair housing guidelines for rentals plus best practices in mind can begin to seem like an overwhelming process. However, there are a lot of great reasons for screening thoroughly and legally!

Some of these reasons include:

  • Great tenants improve your business.
  • Reliable tenants won’t miss payments as frequently.
  • Reliable tenants will take better care of your property while living there.
  • Proper tenant screening prevents unnecessary lawsuits or fines.

Overall, the key point to remember is that properly screening your tenants ensures that you find the right fit for your property while also protecting your business from lost profits or fines. Tenant selection sets up the entire rental situation that you will go through, so doing it carefully is very important!

Get The Rules Right!

The rules of the Fair Housing Act and how fair housing rental laws affect your business should be one of your primary concerns when learning more about running your rental business. If you aren’t completely clear on these guidelines, take the time to brush up on your knowledge.

It is illegal and immoral to discriminate against rental applicants, and it is up to you to ensure that your procedures do not put into action any illegal processes. Screen carefully, but screen legally. In the end, you’ll be able to find the best and most reliable tenants without taking any protected class information into consideration!