What is Fair Housing, and why does it matter?

It’s steeped in history, relevant now, and you have tools if you’re in a bind

How much do you know about fair housing?
How much do you know about fair housing? (Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels)

When you think about the term “fair housing,” do you think, “rent’s not fair,” as in, it’s unfortunate that we have to pay it, and the expense is often substantial?

While it’s true that rents and mortgages often come with a high price tag, that’s not what fair housing is all about.

The concept of fair housing goes much deeper.

The history

The Fair Housing Act is known to many as an important legislative achievement of the Civil Rights era. It was designed to prohibit and protect against discrimination. A lot of fair housing issues involve rentals, but it can come up when people are trying to obtain a mortgage or modify a home loan, as well.

Jeffrey Hussey, the director of public interest and litigation at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, provided some background on the topic and explained why it’s relevant today, in a recent interview.

“History shows the importance of it,” Hussey said. “When Dr. King was assassinated and the country was having racial riots and unrest, President Johnson got Walter Mondale to push for this to be enacted. This was a way to try to heal the country.”

The Fair Housing Act has gone through some changes over the years, most recently to include protections for more people -- meaning landlords can’t discriminate against others for things like their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. The Act also prohibits discrimination in housing because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.

And while it might seem obvious to some, that no one should be discriminating against others, fair housing is still relevant, perhaps especially today, considering the country’s climate.

“In the past two to three years, some racial injustices have come to the forefront,” Hussey said. “People who, in the past, may have hidden their biases, now feel emboldened to flaunt this. And that can be seen in housing.”

Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida receives grants from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to conduct investigations and find out if there are complexes or landlords actively discriminating against others.

If two people with similar credit scores, employment and rental histories attempted to rent an apartment, and management accommodated the white person but not the person of color, or said there were no vacancies, that’s an example of something Community Legal Services would investigate and file a complaint to HUD about.

And that’s just one type of case the group would look into.

Considering where the world stands with COVID-19 and the financial hardships that have accompanied the pandemic, there are a lot of people reaching out to the organization lately, Hussey said.

Disability protections

When you think of disability protections, do you think of those as a civil right? Because they are.

Emotional support animals sometimes make headlines because some people push the boundaries, but Hussey said the group works with men and women who rely on these animals -- for example, consider someone like a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

If that person looks to his or her dog to ease some anxiety, that’s a need. If the veteran is renting at a place with a no-pet policy, that would likely cause an issue.

“If you have a note that says Fido provides support, we can try and work it out,” Hussey said. “Say (the renter) has a disability, a doctor’s note, and we need reasonable accommodations for the complex’s no-pet policy. And if they say it’s a strict no, (we’re talking about) a support animal. Then we’d initiate a complaint process with HUD.”

People can file complaints with HUD on their own, but it might be more effective to get an expert involved.

There are some similarities between the service dog example and grab bars.

If you or someone you know needs them, these types of assistance devices are allowed somewhere like a shower; so long as you’re not ripping out or badly damaging apartment complex walls. For people who use scooters and walkers, fair housing would cover the request of a wheelchair ramp.

And another thing

Landlords can’t discriminate against families with children.

Once, Hussey said, he was working with a couple who lived in a condo complex, and management got upset when they had a baby.

Sure enough, the paperwork really was ancient, Hussey said, adding that there really was a clause or some kind of language against children.

“We filed an injunction in court, and within 20 minutes, the judge granted it to me,” Hussey said.

Most people don’t know they have fair housing rights, Hussey added. They just hear about evictions. And those can be difficult to fight sometimes, unless it’s like the condominium example and someone was silly enough to put something in writing, the lawyer said.

Hussey is concerned that when the pandemic clears, renters and homeowners won’t be able to pay, and we could see issues come up like they did with the housing crisis of 2008: Loan modification troubles, companies trying to get people to refinance under not-ideal terms, minority-populated neighborhoods seeing different interest rates, and the like.

Two people with the same sources of income and the same credit scores might be treated differently.

“And you can’t pick and choose,” Hussey said.

Red-lining is the refusal to give someone a loan because he or she lives in an area deemed to be a financial risk. Hussey said he’s nervous that could come up again, as well.

“People will be desperate when rent moratoriums are gone,” he said. “There could be a housing crisis. People can get scammed and discriminated against.”

Harassment

Sexual harassment is another concern. There’s believed to have been an uptick after COVID-19 hit, with renters unable to pay, and landlords saying something along the lines of, “If you do this for me, I’ll waive it.”

“It happens out there, unfortunately,” Hussey said. And it’s difficult for people to come forward with it. They’re embarrassed, and they didn’t know they had protections.”

So much of the goal is enforcement and education.

“That’s what HUD wants us to do,” Hussey said.

In some cases, it might make more sense for people to go directly to HUD, and you can fill out a complaint online, but it’s often much easier to come to a group like Community Legal Services.

“We can do the initial legwork, investigate, then call,” Hussey said.

CLS can help

Often, working with lawyers buys you a little more time, as HUD is known to send letters, extending cases 100 days while attorneys look into the matter.

There are experts out there who want to assist. At Community Legal Services, the whole goal is helping others.

“Trying to navigate the legal system is hard,” Hussey said. “When it comes to housing and family law, people can be pointed to the forms, but sometimes, that’s not enough.”