Housing discrimination is not a relic of America’s past. It happens to minorities of all kinds every day, even to well-to-do people like Abena and Alex Horton of Jacksonville, Florida.
They told The New York Times the first home appraiser for a 2020 mortgage refinance valued the house about 30% lower than expected, jeopardizing their loan. Suspecting the lowball number was because Abena Horton’s Black, they removed photos of her, all Black family members, and books by Black authors like Toni Morrison.
The ploy worked. The next appraiser valued the home closer to the couple’s expectations. But the experience was humiliating — and one that families with fewer resources would have struggled to navigate. Fortunately, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 provides expansive protections for homeowners and renters facing discrimination in housing and real estate lending.
Who Enforces Federal Fair Housing Laws?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in the sale and rental of housing and mortgage lending based on:
- National origin
- Familial status
Many local and state laws and regulations protect fair housing rights as well. Since the passage of the FHA, federal and state court decisions have strengthened and expanded the act’s protections and enforcement powers.
The federal government assigned enforcement of the FHA to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There are two other enforcement arms, one within HUD and the other a group of third-party organizations.
HUD’s Fair Housing Office
The HUD enforces the FHA through its Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. It investigates complaints made under the FHA, determines whether they have merit, and enforces their resolution.
Fair Housing Testers
Nonprofit fair housing enforcement organizations play a key role in building public awareness of fair housing violations and enforcing fair housing laws. They do so by testing various aspects of fair housing law.
A detailed 2014 report from HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research describes the testing process. It relies on human testers who uncover discriminatory housing practices in the real estate industry by going undercover as prospective renters, homebuyers, and borrowers. They look for discrimination in:
- The process of renting housing to new tenants
- Rental housing management
- Accessibility in rental housing, especially multifamily communities
- How homeowners and real estate agents sell homes, from listing and showing to accepting offers
- Mortgage lending
State & Local Authorities
When buyers, renters, and borrowers believe they’ve experienced housing discrimination, they can also file complaints with state and local housing authorities. When they do, they become known as complainants.
Filing an FHA complaint makes sense for complainants in places with strong fair housing regulations. For example, some states explicitly ban housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That protection isn’t part of the federal Fair Housing Act.
Your experience filing a fair housing complaint with state or local authorities is unlikely to be much different than your experience filing with HUD. But you should consult with those authorities or fair housing or legal aid nonprofits in your area for specific guidance on what to expect.
Types of Fair Housing Complaints
Complaints fall into two broad categories. Some may qualify for both:
- Complaints involving discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, including in privately owned and operated housing
- Complaints involving discrimination in housing and community development programs, including those funded by HUD
A complaint involving alleged housing discrimination can apply to virtually any housing-related activities. That includes renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, or seeking housing assistance.
The alleged offender (the target of the complaint) can be one or more of the following:
- A property owner
- A developer
- A property manager
- A real estate agent or broker
- A homeowners association
- A mortgage lender
- An insurance provider
- Civil employees and authorities, including elected officials, whose actions can affect housing opportunities
When Should You File a Fair Housing Complaint?
You must fall into one of the protected classes outlined in the FHA to file a fair housing complaint (race, color, sex, national origin, religion, familial status, or disability).
The act doesn’t explicitly name sexual orientation or gender identity. However, subject to judicial interpretation, it may provide limited discrimination protection for LGBTQ individuals, including transgender individuals and same-sex couples and people with HIV/AIDS. These protections generally fall under the sex and disability characteristics, respectively.
Unfortunately, many states don’t explicitly outlaw housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In these places, housing providers and lenders may still be permitted to discriminate against LGBTQ people. For information on the law in your jurisdiction, refer to HUD’s list of states with one or both protections.
If someone discriminates against you for any of the reasons outlined in the FHA, you can complain to HUD’s fair housing office.
Offenses worthy of complaints include but aren’t limited to:
- Refusal to rent, sell, or negotiate the rental or sale of housing
- Refusal to confirm that housing is available for sale or rent
- Discouraging the sale or rental of housing
- Segregating housing by protected status (for example, grouping tenants of the same ethnic or racial group on the same floor of an apartment building)
- Mentioning any prohibited preference in housing advertisements
- Using different applications, screening or qualification criteria, or qualification processes for members of one or more protected classes but not all or none
- Harassing applicants, tenants, or occupants
- Conditioning approval of a housing or loan application on the applicant’s response to harassment
- Denying real estate agents or brokers access or membership in local agent organizations or multiple listing services
- A mortgage lender’s refusal to provide information about loan opportunities or issue mortgage loans to otherwise qualified applicants
- A mortgage lender’s refusal to provide other financial assistance to otherwise qualified applicants
- A loan servicing company’s refusal to purchase a home loan
- Retaliating against anyone who files a complaint under the Fair Housing Act, assists a complainant, or assists with the investigation of a complaint
Determining Whether You Have Cause to File a Complaint
Before going through the headache of filing a complaint form, ensure you have reasonable cause to file. You can take these steps to increase your likelihood of success.
- Confirm Your Complaint Falls Within the Statute of Limitations. First, ensure the clock hasn’t run out on your claim. You have one year from the date of the alleged discrimination (or the most recent example of it) to file a complaint.
- Determine Whether Your Complaint Constitutes a Valid Allegation. Next, consult HUD’s Fair Housing booklet to determine whether your issue is a valid complaint under the Fair Housing Act. If you’re not sure, proceed to Step 3.
- Contact a Local Fair Housing Initiatives Program Organization. Organizations funded by HUD’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program play a vital role in assisting housing discrimination victims. Use HUD’s search tool to find one in your area. The staff can help you assess your complaint and determine whether to move forward.
Ultimately, it’s HUD’s job to assess your claim and determine whether it’s prohibited discrimination. But preparing and filing a claim is stressful for the claimant. It’s also time-consuming for the claimant and investigator.
Filing an easily dismissed claim does no one any good. Plus, even if the harm you’ve suffered doesn’t qualify as prohibited discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, you could have other recourse.
For example, say the property owner fails to repair your broken furnace despite repeated complaints from tenants. Under the law, you likely have grounds to file a safe housing complaint with your city’s housing authority and lodge a complaint with HUD’s Multifamily Housing Complaint Line at 800-MULTI-70 (800-685-8470).
You may also have informal options to fix the problem, such as refusing to pay rent until the property owner or manager addresses the issue.
How to File a Fair Housing Discrimination Complaint
After evaluating your situation and determining you have cause to file a housing discrimination complaint, you must prepare and file your actual complaint. If you contacted a HUD-funded assistance organization, they will help.
You’re free to hire an attorney with expertise in fair housing claims at any point during the process. But that’s often unnecessary if you’re working with an assistance organization. Many of them have full-time staff attorneys or access to external legal aid resources.
From start to finish, the process involves several steps.
1. Gather Supporting Documentation
If HUD’s fair housing office later decides to investigate your complaint formally, they won’t expect you to provide all the information needed to see the investigation through. But be prepared to give a detailed accounting of the circumstances precipitating the complaint, including:
- Where the event or events in question occurred
- When the event or events in question occurred
- The identities of others present when the events occurred, regardless of whether they’re included in the allegations
- The identities of others who may have knowledge of or information about the events in question, including others who may have experienced similar harms
- Any physical or electronic records or documents relevant to your complaint, such as rental or mortgage applications, loan documents, or truth-in-housing disclosures
The Fair Housing Act prohibits retaliation against claimants and those assisting them. But when gathering documentation, you shouldn’t put yourself in physical danger or increase your risk of losing housing.
If HUD accepts your complaint, professionals trained to collect and corroborate relevant records and information will investigate.
2. File Your Complaint
You’re now ready to file your complaint through your regional fair housing office. This part of the process involves several possible steps:
- Intake Interview. Upon receiving notice of your complaint, the fair housing office conducts an initial interview to determine whether you have a legally legitimate discrimination complaint.
- Complaint Drafting. If the office concludes there was discrimination, a staff member may draft the complaint for you to review and sign. They then notify all parties to the complaint, including those accused of discrimination, of the complaint’s filing.
- Outside Referral. If investigators conclude there was a violation of state or local laws, HUD may refer you to a state or local fair housing office. If so, you’ll work with staff from that office instead. Don’t take it as a setback. It could help your case to work with a smaller agency that understands your area’s housing market.
If you believe you’re at risk of losing housing due to the alleged discrimination or retaliation for your complaint, make this clear as early as possible. HUD may be in a position to intervene or provide housing assistance before its investigation concludes.
3. Participate in the Investigation
If the fair housing office determines your complaint has merit and accepts the filing or refers your complaint, the next step is a thorough investigation of the allegations.
If HUD remains responsible for the investigation, it will assign one or more investigators and notify the parties named in the complaint. It will then take some or all the following investigative steps:
- Interviewing you and any other alleged victims of discrimination
- Interviewing others with knowledge of the allegations, including witnesses and the parties accused of discrimination
- Inspecting properties named in the allegations
- Gathering relevant documentation and records
As part of the investigative process, the parties named in the complaint can provide their versions of events and respond to specific allegations.
At the investigation’s conclusion, all parties to the complaint receive written reports outlining the findings. That includes the complainant or complainants and the party or parties named in the complaint.
Though investigative procedures can vary somewhat at state or local fair housing agencies, you should expect any referred investigation to follow a similar pattern.
4. Work With HUD on Voluntary Resolution to the Complaint
Throughout its investigation, the fair housing office acts as an intermediary between you and the targets of the complaint. It’s likely to attempt to broker a voluntary resolution before completing the investigation and beginning the costly, time-consuming hearing or court process.
This process is strictly voluntary. You’re not obligated to agree to any proposed settlement. However, you could feel some pressure from the fair housing office, which has limited resources to devote to court action, to do so.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the fair housing office isn’t acting in your best interest. The reality is that success isn’t guaranteed in court. But if you’d like to ensure you have an advocate thinking only of what’s best for you, your best move is to retain a lawyer.
If successful, the voluntary resolution process typically produces one of two types of agreements (and sometimes both): a voluntary compliance agreement or a conciliation agreement.
Both types of agreement address three important issues:
- The steps the parties accused of discrimination must take to make things right
- The compensation or redress provided to the complainant, if any
- Ground rules the accused parties must follow to prevent future harm
These agreements can’t stand in the way of ongoing HUD monitoring and enforcement. If the accused party continues to discriminate, you or other complainants can and should file new claims.
Once all parties sign the agreement or agreements, the investigation concludes.
5. If Voluntary Resolution Is Impossible, Receive a Determination
If no voluntary resolution occurs, the investigation continues to its conclusion. Investigations have one of two outcomes:
- Dismissal, formally known as a determination of no reasonable cause, if HUD finds the allegations do not constitute prohibited discrimination
- Determination of reasonable cause and charge of discrimination — essentially, a finding that the allegations likely do constitute prohibited discrimination
If the investigation results in dismissal, HUD considers the matter concluded. Complainants can request reconsideration if they wish.
6. The Case Moves to an Administrative Hearing or Federal Court
If the fair housing office determines the allegations have merit, the case moves into the adjudication phase.
After receiving notice, all parties to the complaint have 20 days to inform HUD whether they’d prefer to have the case tried in federal court. Any party can state this preference and force all parties into court. If none does, HUD schedules a hearing before a HUD administrative law judge.
Though overseen by the executive branch rather than federal courts, administrative proceedings resemble adversarial court proceedings. The parties all have the opportunity to make arguments, cross-examine witnesses, and present evidence favorable to their claims.
However, administrative proceedings are faster and less costly than traditional court proceedings.
HUD assigns its own attorneys to represent you in these proceedings at no cost to you, so you don’t have to worry about retaining an attorney on your own dime. However, you’re free to do so if you prefer.
Though they save time and money, administrative hearings aren’t always the best choice for fair housing claimants. Depending on the facts of your case, you may have better luck in civil court proceedings. Emotional arguments are more likely to hit home with jurors than judges.
Additionally, federal civil procedures provide more leeway to appeal unfavorable decisions. Consult with an attorney to decide whether your case is a good one to take to court.
If any party requests trial in federal court, HUD refers the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the government agency responsible for enforcing federal law. The DOJ then files a civil lawsuit on your behalf in the jurisdiction where the alleged discrimination occurred. Essentially, the DOJ serves as your attorney in the case.
But you may still wish to retain an attorney at your own expense, especially if you expect to be cross-examined by attorneys for the respondent or respondents.
In either case, expect the trial to last for many months and perhaps years after accounting for appeals. If the administrative or federal court judge decides the case in your favor, their ruling could provide some or all the following types of relief:
- Reasonable attorney’s fees if you hired an attorney at your own expense
- Compensation (civil penalties) for damages incurred as a result of the harm, such as out-of-pocket relocation expenses
- Equitable relief, such as providing housing or a loan that was initially denied
- Injunctive relief, such as a promise by the respondent not to discriminate in the future
- Punitive damages (financial compensation beyond that necessary to redress the harm itself)
What to Do if Your Fair Housing Complaint Is Denied
HUD doesn’t always side with housing discrimination complainants. Many fair housing investigations result in a determination of no reasonable cause and never proceed to the adjudication phase.
If your complaint’s investigation ends with such a determination, you’re not at the end of the road. You have two primary options for further recourse. One involves very little effort. The other takes substantially more time and money.
1. Written Request for Reconsideration
You can submit a written request for reconsideration to the fair housing director’s office at any time after your complaint’s dismissal. Send this request by certified postal mail to:
Director, FHEO Office of Enforcement
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
451 7th St., SW, Room 5226
Washington, DC 20410-2000
Include in your request any new information that has come to light since your complaint’s investigation. That might include statements by the alleged offender that could support your claim of discriminatory intent or evidence of subsequent actions by the offender that could support allegations of a pattern of discrimination.
The Fair Housing Act does not mandate reconsideration of dismissed housing discrimination claims. HUD does not adhere to a formal, standardized reconsideration process, either. That means there’s no guarantee your request will receive a timely response. And HUD could ignore it altogether.
2. File a Private Lawsuit
If your request for reconsideration is denied or ignored or you simply don’t want to wait to hear back, you can move forward with a private lawsuit against the alleged offender.
You must file this suit within two years of the most recent date of alleged discrimination or the conclusion of HUD’s investigation of your complaint, whichever came later.
However, two circumstances prevent you from filing a lawsuit at all:
- Your complaint is presently pending before an administrative judge
- You signed a HUD conciliation agreement to resolve your complaint before the fair housing office could make an official determination of cause
You’re responsible for all costs related to your filing and could be liable for the defendant’s legal fees if the judgment goes in their favor.
If you can’t afford to pay a lawyer to represent you, visit your regional court’s self-help center for information about obtaining pro bono legal representation at no or reduced cost. Alternatively, you can approach local legal aid or housing assistance organizations and request they represent you.
The Fair Housing Act’s mere existence is a check on the potentially discriminatory behavior of individuals and entities with power over Americans’ housing access, including property owners, real estate agents, lenders, and public officials.
However, for all its value, the FHA has limitations. Its protections don’t extend to actions that aren’t inherently discriminatory, such as a failure to repair a broken furnace. The FHA also doesn’t protect you from eviction or foreclosure for lawful reasons, such as nonpayment of rent or mortgage payments.
But tenants and homeowners do have other means of recourse, such as withholding rent, entering a lender’s loan workout program, or tapping sources of emergency financial assistance for renters.