In 1968, Congress enacted Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, called the federal Fair Housing Act, which declared a national policy of providing fair housing throughout the United States (reference Sections 3601-3631 of Title 42, United States Code). This law makes discrimination based on race, color, sex, familial status, handicap, religion or national origin illegal in connection with the sale or rental of most dwellings (including time-sharing units) and any vacant land offered for residential construction or use. The law is administered by the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) under the direction of the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
As amended in 1972, the law instituted the use of equal opportunity posters (11”x14”) for display at brokerage houses, model home sites, mortgage lenders’ offices and other related locations. Failure to display the poster constitutes prima facie evidence of discrimination, if a broker does not display the sign and is investigated by HUD on charges of discrimination. The poster must show the equal housing opportunity slogan: Equal Housing Opportunity. It must also carry the equal housing opportunity statement: “we are pledged to the letter and spirit of U.S. policy for the achievement of equal housing opportunity through the Nation. We encourage and support an affirmative advertising and marketing program in which there are no barriers to obtaining housing because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, handicap or national origin.” The equal housing opportunity logo also has to be displayed on the poster.
The fair housing law provides protection against the following:
- Refusing to sell or rent to, deal or negotiate with any person
- Misrepresenting terms or conditions for buying or renting housing
- Advertising that housing is available only to persons of a certain race, color, sex, familial status, handicap, religion or national origin (such as placing sold signs when the property is not actually sold.
- Denying that housing is available for inspection, sale or rent when it really is available, (this includes a practice called steering, which is addressed below.
- Blockbusting—a practice whereby a broker hopes to profit through persuading owners to sell or rent housing by telling them that minority groups are moving into the neighborhood; also called panic peddling.
- Denying or requiring different terms or conditions for home loans made by commercial lenders such as banks, savings and loan associations and insurance companies.
- Denying to anyone the use of, or participation in, any real estate service such as broker’s organizations, multiple listing services or other facilities related to the selling or renting of housing.
The Fair Housing Act applies to the following:
- Single-family housing owned by private individuals when a broker or other person in the business of selling or renting dwellings is employed (includes the use of the MLS) and/or discriminatory advertising is used.
- Single-family housing not owned by private individuals, such as those owned by development corporations.
- Single-family housing owned by a private individual who owns more than three such dwellings or who, in any two-year period, sells more than one dwelling in which he or she was not the most recent resident.
- Multifamily dwellings of five or more units.
- Multifamily dwellings containing four or fewer units, if the owner does not reside in one of the units.
Exceptions: The following situations are exempt from the Fair Housing Act but are covered by the post-Civil War 1866 antidiscrimination civil rights law, if based on race:
- The sale or rental of single-family housing if neither a broker nor discriminatory advertising is used, and no more than one dwelling in which the owner was not the most recent resident is sold during any two-year period.
- The rental of rooms or units in owner-occupied multiple dwellings for two to four families, if discriminatory advertising is not used.
- The sale, rental or occupancy of dwellings owned and operated by a religious organization for other than commercial purposes to persons of the same religion, if membership in that religion is not restricted because of race, color, sex or national origin; the religious organization can give preference to its members (e.g. it could levy a surcharge on nonmembers.)
In 1988, amendments were passed to extend the “handicapped” provision to include physical, mental impairment, as well as cancer, AIDS, alcoholism, visual, and hearing or speech impediments.
Criminal penalties are provided for those who coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with a person’s buying, renting or selling housing. Violations are often proved through the use of “testers,” and the courts have ruled that there is no requirement that the testers actually be bona fide purchasers or renters.
For more details also see "Fair Housing Laws" and HUD.