In the District of Columbia there are three key laws that protect residents and applicants from discrimination, including unfair actions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and against families that have children and pregnant women.
The Fair Housing Act, applicable to just about all housing transactions — rentals, purchasing a home, getting a loan and homeowners insurance — applies to the treatment of individuals and families while they are tenants, said Sara Pratt, an attorney with the D.C. law firm of Relman, Dane & Colfax in Northwest.
Pratt formerly served as deputy assistant secretary for enforcement and programs and senior advisor to the assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, then responsible for overseeing HUD’s enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws.
“The Fair Housing Act is enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development which conducts investigations, attempts settlements and issues findings all litigated by the U.S Department of Justice or by lawyers for HUD at no charge,” Pratt said.
“A fair housing act case can also be brought directly in federal court by victims of discrimination. One local group, the Equal Rights Center, is funded to help individuals and landlords by providing education and advocacy for them and to help find lawyers and develop cases,” she said.
The District has a local law that covers many additional types of illegal discrimination and it’s enforced by the DC office of Human Rights.
If housing is funded by HUD, or any other federal agency, like Health and Human Services for shelters, there are other civil rights requirements that come with the funding including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which applies to race and national origin and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act which applies to disability.
Residents should know that the FHA requires accessible routs to be safe and without hazard, said Michael Schneider, a principal at Endelman & Associates, an FHA consultant and accessibility expert located in Washington state.
“Public housing has more rigorous requirements for accessibility in quantity and features for both mobility and communication units per ADA,” Schneider said.
David Reiss, who writes and teaches about housing policy at the Brooklyn Law School in New York, said homeownership rates peaked right before the financial crisis, but the long term prognosis for homeownership does not look good, especially for households of color.
“Homeownership took a nosedive during the financial crisis, but homeownership among African-American and Hispanic households was hit particularly hard. The overall homeownership rate is about 64 percent currently, but it is about 43 percent for African Americans and about 47 percent for Hispanic households,” Reiss said, quoting a recent Census Bureau report.
According to research by the Urban Institute, the homeownership rate will likely remain low for quite some time, particularly among African-American households.
“The most important things are to know the law and your rights,” Reiss said. “Federal and state laws offer protection against many forms of housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, familial status, among others. At the federal level, HUD can investigate alleged fair housing violations and states have agencies that are dedicated to fair housing,” he said.
Pratt notes that in the District, because low income individuals are predominantly Black and Latino, the civil rights laws often apply to them, either because certain treatment of low-income persons — like only building affordable housing in Anacostia — can be discriminatory and segregates, or because housing occupied by low-income individuals is being torn down with people of color primarily being those who become displaced. Treatment of those of low-income can also amount to discrimination based on race or national origin.
“If people think that they are being discriminated against I would encourage them to check in with the Equal Rights Center. They can help focus in whether it could be discrimination,” she said. “Sometimes, of course, it’s not discrimination, it’s just unfair or unpleasant. The Equal Rights Center helps people figure it out.”
It’s also important to note that individuals can still be pleasant and still discriminate, Pratt cautioned.
And, there are times when someone might believe they are the victim of discrimination but in some cases it could simply be about personalities or qualifications, Pratt said.
“Fair housing laws are often applied in surprising ways like turning someone down because they have a long-resolved conviction of a crime can be illegal racial discrimination or national origin discrimination because our justice system often treats Blacks and Latinos worse, so they’re more likely to have a conviction than a white person is for the same thing,” she said.
“Discrimination against a woman trying to get a loan to buy a house because she’s pregnant can be illegal discrimination and discrimination by telling someone that they have too many children to live in an apartment can be illegal discrimination as long as the unit would not be overcrowded,” Pratt said.