Fair Housing Laws on Tenant Screening

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the lease, sale or financing of housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, familial status and disability. Many regions of the nation are also subject to local and state fair housing laws which could expand upon, but not decrease, the federal statute. Tenant screening, an component of rental home, is subject to all fair housing laws.


The Fair Housing Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1968, is Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act. It had been passed in the midst of the return of Vietnam veterans, many of them minorities, who were being denied mortgages, flats and homes based on their race. Through the years a number of amendments are added to the law, among them the discrimination ban on people with disabilities and families with kids. State and local fair housing legislation came before and after the federal law. New York City passed the local law in 1957. California’s was among the first comprehensive state legislation in 1963.


Requiring different information from other classes of applicants based on some of the protected class categories is illegal. For instance, you can’t require a white candidate to present a copy of a tax return along with a applicant a duplicate of his employer-provided W-2 form. You can’t ask about national origin or religion. In certain states, such as California, you can’t inquire about citizenship or immigration status. You can prohibit pets normally and say this on a program, however if a potential tenant has a letter from a physician saying he needs a companion puppy due to a mental health condition, you can’t deny tenancy or prohibit the puppy. In summary, you can’t base any activity or decision in the screening procedure on any aspect of an applicant’s membership in one of the protected classes.

Complaint Process

Applicants or tenants that believe they’ve been treated unfairly have one year to file a federal fair housing complaint. It’s then investigated by either the Department of Housing and Urban Development or a state or local housing agency. Parties may voluntarily enter a conciliation process—like mediation—to resolve the complaint. If investigators find acceptable cause that discrimination took place, they bring the offending party prior to an administrative law judge for a hearing loss. Penalties and damages can amount to thousands of dollars.


Proving you didn’t violate fair housing regulations in a specific instance, perhaps many months prior, is a struggle. The ideal way a landlord can protect himself against these claims—along with rigorous adherence to regulations —would be to record notes and steps taken through the screening procedure and keep tenant screening records for well over a year. A checklist or other paper document that demonstrates consistent screening steps for every single applicant will help.


A landlord isn’t required to divulge his screening procedure to potential tenants during the procedure or give reasons for not choosing a tenant unless the decision was predicated on the results of a credit reportnonetheless, if a fair housing complaint is lodged, he won’t only have to disclose the procedure, but fully document it. To prevent even the appearance of discrimination, a few landlords disclose every step involved in the procedure and follow it .

See related