What Homebuyers Need to Know About the Fair Housing Act

There are a lot of common sayings about the word fair: life isn't fair, fair and square, fair-weather friends. When it comes to the homebuying process, there's another type of fair to know about, and it's designed to give homebuyers a fair shake: the Fair Housing Act.

The Fair Housing Act is perhaps better known by its other name, the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This landmark piece of legislation—passed at the height of the civil rights movement—is actually a followup to the original Civil Rights Act of 1964 and focuses more specifically on housing.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Fair Housing Act "protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities." While the Fair Housing Act also applies to renters, we'll be looking at it more closely with homebuyers in mind. But before we dive in, a quick tip: If you see the acronym FHA, it refers to the Federal Housing Administration, not the Fair Housing Act.

Whom does the Fair Housing Act protect?

The Fair Housing Act aims to provide access to housing to everyone as a basic right, which means just about anyone is protected under this act. Although the act originally protected buyers from being discriminated against based on their race, religion, or national origin, Fair Housing Act protections grew as attitudes changed. 

For example, one's sex was added as a protection in 1974, while people with disabilities and families with children were added in 1988. Although there currently aren't specific provisions for transgender individuals, The National Center for Transgender Equality notes that "courts have increasingly held that discrimination because a person is transgender, or because he or she fails to conform to gender stereotypes, is sex discrimination under federal civil rights laws."

Are there any exemptions?

Yes, there are a few exceptions to the Fair Housing Act—but only a few. The act covers almost all housing, but in limited circumstances, the act may exempt owner-occupied buildings with fewer than four units, single-family homes that are sold or rented by the owner without using a real estate agent, housing operated by religious organizations, and private clubs that require membership in order for people to gain occupancy, according to HUD.

What are some real-world examples of the Fair Housing Act in action?

Terms like "social steering" and "redlining" offer some good (well, bad) examples of why the Fair Housing Act is important. Social steering is the idea that an entity, such as a real estate firm or a housing authority, would steer a buyer toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on his or her race.

Redlining takes it a step further. Instead of steering individual buyers and families toward certain areas, redlining would blatantly deny specific neighborhoods financial support from local governments or other entities based on the socioeconomic makeup of those neighborhoods. In instances like these, those responsible would be in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

Just last year in May 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Miami, which filed a suit against Bank of America. In that ruling, the court found that cities can sue banks over Fair Housing Act violations that target minority groups.

Another important court case surrounding Fair Housing Act violations is the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center et. all v. HUD and Paul Rainwater, Executive Director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. While the name is extremely long, the crux of the case is short and easy to understand.

After Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, a program called Road Home was supposed to provide New Orleans-area storm victims with funds to rebuild their homes. However, the organization based compensation on a home's original value rather than the cost of the damage. This meant that homes in majority black neighborhoods received significantly less money than homes in majority white neighborhoods for the same amount of damage.

The case was settled in 2011, when HUD agreed to pay $62 million to eligible homeowners to make up for the disparity.

Here are a few other landmark cases surrounding the Fair Housing Act you may want to read about.

I think I've been discriminated against. What should I do?

First, know you're not alone. According to Next City, the National Fair Housing Alliance estimates that over 4million cases of housing discrimination occur annually.

Next, consult HUD's guidelines on how to file a formal complaint. You can conveniently file online, over the phone, or in person.

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