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What is the Fair Housing Act and What Virginia Landlords Should Look Out For?

For individuals who operate in the rental industry, including landlords and property managers, it’s important to be familiar with the Fair Housing Act. The details covered in the Fair Housing Act were developed to prevent both intentional and unintentional discriminatory housing practices. While no rental professional wants to behave in a way that treats tenants or prospective tenants unfairly, accidents and misunderstandings can happen. As such, it’s important for landlords to take steps toward protecting themselves from FHA violations.

In this article, we’ll cover what the Fair Housing Act is, who it protects, and how landlords and property managers can remain compliant with fair housing laws.

What is the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act, or FHA, is a federal law spanning across the United States that was designed to prevent discriminatory activity when it comes to housing-related activities. The FHA was established in 1968 as part of the Civil Rights Act and, initially, it was implemented to combat the racial segregation that was common in housing at the time. 

When the Fair Housing Act was put into place, it listed protections from housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin. As the years passed, the FHA was amended several times so that it would include additional protections for sex discrimination, disability discrimination, and familial status discrimination.

Today, the FHA protects twelve unique classes of individuals from being discriminated against when searching for or obtaining housing. This means that, when the law is followed accordingly, protected classes are safe from discriminatory behaviors when renting an apartment, buying a home, obtaining a mortgage loan, or securing homeowner’s insurance.

The law applies to housing providers of all kinds, including (but not limited to) landlords, real estate agents, property managers, banks, lenders, and insurance companies.

Protected Classes Under the Fair Housing Act

As mentioned above, the Fair Housing Act has been amended several times since the year it was established to include protections for a greater number of people. Today, the classes protected by the FHA include the following:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Disability
  • Sex or Gender 
  • Familial Status
  • Elderliness (for those 55 and above)
  • Military Status
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity
  • Source of Funds

Discrimination According to the Fair Housing Act

The term “discrimination” refers to the differential treatment of an individual or group of individuals based on certain characteristics they possess. When most of us think of discrimination, intentional exclusion and poor treatment is usually what comes to mind. However, discriminatory practices can be a lot more subtle than this.

In fact, some discriminatory actions may not even be intentional. Whether these behaviors are intentional or not, though, they result in certain individuals being denied access to opportunities that are granted to other individuals.

When it comes to the Fair Housing Act, several behaviors can be considered discriminatory and can take place at any point along a tenant or prospective tenant’s residency. This includes during the search for housing, the application process, or after the tenant has already established residency.

Examples of discrimination in housing may include:

  • Refusal to rent to an individual based on protected class characteristics
  • Lying to a prospective tenant about a unit’s availability based on protected class characteristics
  • Requiring additional application criteria that either bar or disproportionately target certain groups
  • Restricting an individual’s housing choices (ex: directing black applicants away from white-dominant neighborhoods)
  • Intimidating or coercing a tenant so that they feel unsafe in their unit
  • Treating one tenant differently than other tenants
  • Adding unequal terms and conditions to rental agreements
  • Denying equal access to amenities or facilities 
  • Refusing or neglecting maintenance duties for specific tenants
  • Denying accommodations for one tenant that are provided for another

Not all discriminatory acts are this blatant, and to help landlords steer clear of gray-area practices, we’ll cover several tips that will point tenant interactions in the right direction.

Fair Housing Tips for Virginia Landlords

Some landlord behaviors, despite being well-intentioned, can be discriminatory in terms of adhering to Virginia’s Fair Housing Laws. For example, a landlord might note in their rental listing that they’re interested in providing homes for families or military personnel. Even if the individual is trying to be kind and supportive to these classes of people, the listing criteria can be discriminatory to those who do not fit into these categories.

It’s that easy to discriminate, so if you’re a landlord in Virginia, it’s important to take all the right steps when advertising and renting your properties.

Here are a few tips to follow in order to avoid inadvertent discrimination against tenants or potential tenants:

  • Ask the same questions and follow the same protocols for all prospective tenants
  • Provide every potential tenant with equal access to your available units
  • Avoid mentioning the characteristics of your ideal tenant altogether
  • Focus on showcasing your unit’s features and amenities
  • Be equally available for all tenants when it comes to concerns or maintenance needs
  • Do not deny reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities
  • Base your rent prices on the unit, not the tenant

Additionally, if you’re meeting with a tenant or prospective tenant, keep your questions and comments geared toward the individual’s rental or credit history. Even if you’re making small talk, avoid asking these types of questions. 

  • Questions about the tenant’s health
  • Questions about the tenant’s sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation
  • Questions inquiring about the tenant’s race or country of origin
  • Questions concerning whether the tenant attends church
  • Questions centered around the tenant’s children

Despite the fact that you might mean well, these questions can be seen as discriminatory so it’s best to avoid them when fostering tenant-landlord relationships. Keep your conversations and interactions as professional as possible, and you’ll likely avoid getting into intentional or unintentional discriminatory territory.

By developing a clear and consistent process to follow when interacting with tenants or prospective tenants, you can ensure that you’re complying with the Fair Housing Act. Follow the same rules for every applicant or tenant, and take time to keep yourself up-to-date with the latest housing laws in Virginia. This way, you can avoid any misunderstandings and maintain positive, professional relationships with your tenants.

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