Housing discrimination is a vexing and pervasive problem in California and, indeed, nationwide.
It is also severely under-reported. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that more than two million instances of housing discrimination occur each year, but fewer than one percent are reported. Many people are unaware that they have been victims of housing discrimination. A recent study by HUD suggests that many renters and home buyers do not fully understand which activities are illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).
The California Legislature has declared that the opportunity to seek, obtain and hold housing without unlawful discrimination is a civil right.
As such, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant, or engage in any other type of discrimination, on the basis of group characteristics specified by law that are not closely related to the landlord’s business needs. Disability, race, and religion are examples of group characteristics specified by law. Arbitrary discrimination on the basis of any personal characteristic such as those listed under this heading also is prohibited.
Under California law, it is unlawful for a housing provider such as an owner, a landlord, managing agent, real estate broker, or salesperson to discriminate against a person or harass a person because of the person’s:
- Race or color,
- Sex (including pregnancy, childbirth or medical conditions related to them, as well as gender and perception of gender),
- Sexual orientation,
- Marital status (for example, refusing to allow a couple to live together under the pretense that one of the couple’s credit is not good enough),
- National origin or ancestry,
- Familial status (families with children under 18), or
- Source of income.
In essence, California law also prohibits discrimination based on any of the following:
- A person’s medical condition or mental or physical disability; or
- Personal characteristics, such as a person’s physical appearance or sexual orientation that are not related to the responsibilities of a tenant; or
- A perception of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, disability or medical condition, or a perception that a person is associated with another person who may have any of these characteristics.
It is also important to note that under both California state anti-discrimination housing laws, a person associated with one of the above-identified victims of discrimination or harassment may sue for being associated with the victim of discrimination if they can show that they suffered damages or were harmed by the unlawful conduct of the housing provider even though the victim was the original or main target of the discrimination.
Under California law, a landlord cannot use a financial or income standard for persons who want to live together and combine their incomes that is different from the landlord’s standard for married persons who combine their incomes. In the case of a government rent subsidy, a landlord who is assessing a potential tenant’s eligibility for a rental unit must use a financial or income standard that is based on the portion of rent that the tenant would pay.
A landlord cannot apply rules, regulations or policies to unmarried couples who are registered domestic partners that do not apply to married couples.
Regarding issues of immigration or citizenship status, under California law a landlord cannot inquire as to the immigration status of the tenant or prospective tenant or require that a tenant or prospective tenant make any statement concerning his or her immigration or citizenship status. It appears that discrimination on immigration or citizenship status results in illegal discrimination if it is arbitrary not related to the responsibilities of a tenant, or is, in effect, on the basis of race or national origin.
Pursuant to the provisions of California Civil Code § 1940.3:
(b) No landlord or any agent of the landlord shall do any of the following:
(1) Make any inquiry regarding or based on the immigration or citizenship status of a tenant, prospective tenant, occupant, or prospective occupant of residential rental property.
(2) Require that any tenant, prospective tenant, occupant, or prospective occupant of the rental property make any statement, representation, or certification concerning his or her immigration or citizenship status.”
It is illegal for landlords to discriminate against families with children under 18. However, housing for senior citizens may exclude families with children. “Housing for senior citizens” includes housing that is occupied only by persons who are at least age 62, or housing that is operated for occupancy by persons who are at least age 55 and that meets other occupancy, policy and reporting requirements stated in the law.
Limited exceptions for single rooms and roommates:
If the owner of an owner-occupied, single-family home rents out a room in the home to a roomer or a boarder, and there are no other roomers or boarders living in the household, the owner is not subject to the restrictions listed under.
A person in a single-family dwelling who advertises for a roommate may express a preference on the basis of gender, if living areas (such as the kitchen, living room, or bathroom) will be shared by the roommate
Examples of Unlawful Housing Discrimination
Unlawful housing discrimination can take a variety of forms. Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act and Unruh Civil Rights Act, it is unlawful for a landlord, managing agent, real estate broker, or salesperson to discriminate against any person because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth or medical conditions related to them, as well as gender and perception of gender), sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, disability, medical condition, or age in any of the following ways:
- Refusing to sell, rent, or lease.
- Refusing to negotiate for a sale, rental, or lease.
- Representing that housing is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when it is, in fact, available.
- Otherwise denying or withholding housing accommodations.
- Providing inferior housing terms, conditions, privileges, facilities, or services.
- Sexually harassing tenants by seeking sexual favors before providing necessary repairs inside the tenants’s unit.
- Harassing a person in connection with housing accommodations.
- Canceling or terminating a sale or rental agreement.
- Providing segregated or separated housing accommodations.
- Refusing to permit a person with a disability, at the person with a disability’s own expense, to make reasonable modifications to a rental unit that are necessary to allow the person with a disability “full enjoyment of the premises.” As a condition of making the modifications, the landlord may require the person with a disability to enter into an agreement to restore the interior of the rental unit to its previous condition at the end of the tenancy (excluding reasonable wear and tear).
- Refusing to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when necessary to allow a person with a disability “equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling” (for example, refusing to allow a person with a disability’s companion or service dog, including “comfort” animals or pets, including, but not limited to dogs, cats, or even birds).
Resolving Housing Discrimination Problems
If you think your rights to fair housing have been violated, we can help you. If you are a victim of housing discrimination (for example, if a landlord refuses to rent to you because of your disability, religion, race or national origin, etc), you may have several legal remedies, including:
- Recovery of out-of-pocket losses.
- An injunction prohibiting the unlawful practice.
- Access to housing that the landlord denied you.
- Damages for emotional distress.
- Civil penalties or punitive damages.
- Attorney’s fees.
Sometimes, a court may order the housing provider or landlord to take specific action to stop unlawful discrimination. For example, the landlord may be ordered to advertise vacancies in newspapers published by certain groups whom the landlord discriminated against, or to place fair housing posters in the rental office.