Tenant Law and Housing Equality: Life Isn’t Fair, But Housing Should Be

It has been three generations since state and federal laws were passed prohibiting housing discrimination.  Unfortunately, the practice remains all too common.  The question is, what is it? And what can you do about it? 

Fair Housing Act 

The Fair Housing Act (42 U.S. Code § 3604) was passed by the United States Congress in 1964.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development is responsible for enforcing this law, which can form the basis of a lawsuit in federal court.  It prohibits unequal treatment based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), familial status, and disability.  In California, though, if you make a complaint to HUD, you will likely be referred to the California Civil Rights Department, formerly the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. 

State Laws 

The California Civil Rights Department, as well as state courts, can enforce California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which makes it unlawful “For the owner of any housing accommodation to discriminate against or harass any person because of the race, color, religion, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, disability, veteran or military status, or genetic information of that person.” (CA Govt. Code § 12955(a).) Tenants who prove they have been discriminated against or will be discriminated against may receive “actual and punitive damages [or] other relief, including the issuance of a temporary or permanent injunction, or temporary restraining order, or other order, as [a court] deems appropriate to prevent any defendant from engaging in or continuing to engage in an unlawful practice,” as well as attorney fees and costs at the court’s discretion. (CA Govt.Code § 12989.2.)  Moreover, according to California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, “(b) All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, citizenship, primary language, or immigration status are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” (CA Civ.Code § 51(b).)  “Whoever denies, aids or incites a denial, or makes any discrimination or distinction contrary to Section 51, 51.5, or 51.6, is liable for each and every offense for the actual damages, and any amount that may be determined by a jury, or a court sitting without a jury, up to a maximum of three times the amount of actual damage but in no case, less than four thousand dollars ($4,000), and any attorney’s fees that may be determined by the court in addition thereto, suffered by any person denied the rights provided in Section 51, 51.5, or 51.6.(b) Whoever denies the right provided by Section 51.7 or 51.9, or aids, incites, or conspires in that denial, is liable for each and every offense for the actual damages suffered by any person denied that right and, in addition, the following: (1) An amount to be determined by a jury, or a court sitting without a jury, for exemplary damages,” and “(3) Attorney’s fees as may be determined by the court.” (CA Civ.Code § 52(a)(1, 3).) 

The state remedies can be very effective, especially since you can reach out to the California Civil Rights Department while still in your unit and attempt to obtain a resolution that does not require you to move out.  In the event, a lawsuit is the right option, however, properly having documented your concerns about unequal treatment can go a long way toward convincing your former landlord that settlement is the better part of valor.