As recently as 1967, there were no laws that prohibited discrimination in the leasing, purchase and sale of real estate. That changed with the enactment of fair-housing laws as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. These laws guarantee the right to own, use, and transfer real estate and housing in a diverse, yet discrimination-free, marketplace. The laws are about not only providing equal opportunities, but ensuring that the housing industry, as a whole, supports these opportunities.
What’s the difference between fair and affordable?
Too often, we find that affordable housing and fair housing get lumped together. They’re not the same thing—not even close! Your rights under the Fair Housing Act can be violated whether you’re a student trying to rent a one-bedroom apartment, a retiree seeking to purchase a million-dollar property, or a buyer looking for your first affordable home.
Affordable housing, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is when a household spends no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing expenses, including basic utilities. Any household that spends in excess of 30 percent is considered “cost burdened” and may have trouble affording other necessities and establishing healthy long-term savings.
Seven protected classes
Fair-housing laws prohibit housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, disability, national origin, and familial status. The Fair Housing Act applies to most types of housing and shields the protected categories from discrimination such as:
- Refusing to rent or sell housing
- Refusing to negotiate for housing
- Making housing unavailable
- Denying a dwelling
- Setting different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling
- Providing different housing services or facilities
- Falsely denying that housing is available for inspection, sale or rental
- Denying anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing
The Fair Housing Act applies to mortgage lending, as well, and prohibits using any of the protected categories as reasons for:
- Refusing to make a mortgage loan
- Refusing to provide information regarding loans
- Imposing different terms or conditions on a loan, such as different interest rates, points, or fees
- Discriminating in appraising property
- Refusing to purchase a loan
- Setting different terms or conditions for purchasing a loan
Bear in mind that fair-housing laws shield everyone in these protected groups—not just those that have been historical targets for discrimination. In other words, someone who is refused housing because he or she is white has as much protection as someone who is refused housing because he or she is disabled.
Under the fair-housing laws, it is also illegal for anyone to threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with anyone exercising a fair-housing right or assisting others who exercise that right.
Don’t be offended
If you’re in the market to buy a home, you’ll likely have a great deal of contact with your real estate agent. Because your agent is so knowledgeable and accessible, you may feel as though he or she has all the answers about the local market. It’s a logical, and usually correct, assumption. Agents—particularly Realtors—know their communities and the real estate industry very well.
Part of knowing the industry, though, is having a thorough understanding of fair-housing laws. As such, there are certain questions that a real estate professional simply can’t (or shouldn’t) answer.
If you ask your Realtor to eliminate or include certain areas or neighborhoods in your home search based on any of the protected classes, that Realtor legally cannot follow your instructions. Don’t be offended or angry. No matter how benign the request may seem, it would be a violation of fair housing laws and he or she would be risking a hefty fine, along with reputation and career.
An agent’s job is to match the client with properties based on factors such as available features and sales price—not on the demographics of the client or the area. Such action could be considered “steering,” which is the illegal act of funneling of homebuyers either to or away from a particular area based on demographics. For instance, showing a black family only homes which lie in predominately black neighborhoods is considered steering, as is refusing to show a family with three children a home in an area with mostly single residents.
Ethnically based and racially based steering are the most common, but any such practice is unacceptable and goes against fair-housing laws.
Forty years is just not that long ago, folks. It’s hard for many of us to believe that there were no laws on the books to protect the housing interests of every American until so recently. And, although we’ve made tremendous strides as a country, we’ve still got a long way to go. We must remain diligent in our pursuit of discrimination-free society.
If there's a problem
I hope that you have never been, and never will be, a victim of housing discrimination. But if you think your rights have been violated, you can contact HUD and complete a Housing Discrimination Complaint Form. It's available for download on HUD's Web site http://www.hud.gov , or you can contact the HUD office nearest you. You have one year after an alleged violation to file a complaint, but it's wise to file as soon as possible.
Whether you're interested in buying your first home, your next home, or just want to know more about home-ownership in general, I encourage you to check out a couple of great online resources: http://www.texasrealestate.com/ or http://www.har.com/ and for all of your Pearland TX and Northern Brazoria and Galveston County real estate needs, please visit my site at http://www.danfrankrealty.com/. All of these sites offer tons of useful, real estate-related information geared specifically for Texans.
Danny Frank is a local Pearland TX Real Estate expert!
My column was also published in the 12April09 edition of the Galveston County Daily News