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What Is Illegal Steering and How Can I Spot it?

Steering is a more subtle, yet still illegal, form of housing discrimination. Be aware of comments that indicate a landlord is trying to direct you towards or away from certain units.

Steering is a common form of housing discrimination that can be harder to spot than when a landlord outright refuses to rent to someone. The general idea is that, although landlords might be willing to rent to anyone, they are still guiding tenants toward certain apartments or buildings based on their race, religion, or other characteristics protected under the Fair Housing Act. This could end up forcing you to pay more in rent, if you’re only shown more expensive units. Or it could extend your search for a new home, since you aren’t seeing every unit available in a particular building.

In This Article

Examples of illegal steering
How to spot it
Steering versus redlining
What you can do

Examples of illegal steering

Anyone can file an illegal steering complaint with HUD or file their own lawsuit in federal or state court. These complaints are referred to the U.S. Department of Justice and might turn into suits brought on behalf of illegal steering victims. Since 1992, 111 such suits have led to the recovery of more than $15.3 million.

Here are some examples of recent suits:

  • In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice settled with the owner of an eight-building apartment complex in North Attleboro, Massachusetts for allegedly steering families with children to rent certain buildings, floors, and apartments. The leasing agent explained to a government tester (posing as a prospective tenant) that “the only buildings with kids are five, seven, and eight; one, two, three, four, and six are adults. You will see some kids there ’cause if they are born there I can’t throw them away. They have to stay there.” The owner had to pay $135,000 in damages, a $7,500 civil penalty, and comply with training and reporting requirements.1

  • In 2008, a complaint was submitted to HUD after a Georgia real estate agent told a member of the National Fair Housing Alliance who was posing as a prospective homebuyer that he did not where to show him homes because he "didn't know if you were Caucasian or not over the phone." The agent's brokerage paid a settlement of $160,000.2

  • In 2007 the Department of Justice demonstrated that the owners and operators of an apartment complex in Las Vegas represented that there were no apartments available at Bonanza Springs Apartments while at the same time telling white applicants that apartments were available for rent. The firm was ordered to pay $285,000 to victims and $165,000 to the government as a civil penalty3.

  • In 2004 the owners of apartments in Chalmette, Louisiana were ordered to pay a $100,000 civil penalty, $60,000 in damages to victims, and $10,000 to fund community-wide training for tenants and landlords. This was the result of a complaint alleging a pattern of racial discrimination, in which the apartment building either turned away Black prospects or steered them to a building in a Black neighborhood.4

How to spot it

Although it’s against the law, steering is not as obvious as other forms of housing discrimination. In fact, many people don’t know it’s happening to them at all. Be on the lookout for comments like the ones below, which may indicate illegal steering.

“If I were a single woman like you, I would want to rent where it’s safer.”

In its most basic form, steering refers to situations in which landlords discourage people from renting apartments at their property for a discriminatory reason.1 Consider it a red flag for illegal steering if the landlord, property manager, or real estate broker mentions your race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status in the context of helping you choose the right unit.

Even if the landlord hasn’t imposed an outright ban on renting to certain types of people, using any of the above reasons to unfairly limits your housing choices is a violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and illegal5.

“We do have a pool, but I don’t need to show it to you because you know what a pool looks like.”

Some landlords steer prospective tenants away by exaggerating drawbacks with a unit or failing to inform them about desirable features of their property or the neighborhood. For example, a landlord might decide not to take certain people on a tour of the indoor swimming pool, or “forget” to tell them that all tenants receive a reduced-rate membership at a local gym. If a landlord or broker acts negatively when showing or describing apartments to you on account of your race, religion, or other protected class, they are violating the FHA.6

“I think there are other apartment buildings in town that cater more to kids.”

If a landlord tries to imply that you wouldn’t feel comfortable or be compatible with other tenants at a property, they’re engaging in illegal steering. This is true even if a landlord is acting in what they believe to be your best interest—for instance, if a landlord believes her property is not particularly kid-friendly, she still can’t recommend that families look elsewhere. Doing so would violate the FHA’s ban on familial status discrimination. Similarly, a landlord can’t refuse to tell a Muslim family about certain available apartments, even if he knows that the neighboring tenant believes that all Muslims are terrorists.7

“We have a few apartments in the back of the building for people in wheelchairs.”

Landlords who claim to rent to anyone—but try to assign you to certain floors or sections of a building based on a characteristic protected by the FHA—are illegally steering. Say a landlord is worried that if he rents to people who need wheelchairs, his property will resemble a nursing home. If he only tells tenants in wheelchairs about units in a far corner of a building, he is limiting their choices based on disability, which is against the law.8

Steering versus redlining

Redlining is another discriminatory, housing-related practice. Instead of withholding housing options from consumers based on a protected class, housing-related services such as credit or insurance are withheld from consumers living in predominantly minority neighborhoods. The name came from a series of maps drawn up by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in 1935. In these maps, neighborhoods with mostly Black residents were outlined in red and considered too risky for lending purposes.

What you can do

If you think that you have experienced illegal steering the most important thing you can do is document your communications with the landlord, property manager, or real estate agent. Once you have evidence that they are using your personal characteristics to influence your housing decisions - for example, a recording of something that they said to you - you can speak with a local real estate attorney to find out what your options are. Illegal steering can be punishable in a variety of ways including:

  • A private lawsuit
  • An administrative complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or a state/local fair housing agency.
  • Actions brought by the Department of Justice. These come about after the DOJ reviews complaints submitted to HUD and private lawsuits. They will conduct their own investigation to gather evidence of illegal steering and open a suit if it makes sense.

Penalties include high civil monetary fines and additional claims for damages (for example, economic or emotional distress), and attorney fees. Many state licensing laws also prohibit discrimination, and a real estate agent found to be in violation may have their license revoked or be banned from a trade association.

[1] U.S. v. J & R Associates, Civil Action No. 15-11748 (D. Mass. 2015)

[2] *U.S. and National Fair Housing Alliance, Inc., v. Coldwell Banker Bullard Realty Company Inc., Coldwell Banker Joe T. Lane Realty Inc., and Rodney Lee Foreman

[3] U.S. v. B&S properties of St. Bernard, LLC; Fosco Enterprises, Inc; Berkeley Foster; Linda Foster; Lonnie Boster; and Selena Foster

[4] *U.S. v. Bonanza Springs, LLC; Temple 1991 Revocable Trust dba Bonanza Springs Apartments; "RJ" A. Barry, Temple Dev. Corp., and Temple Investment Trust

[1] 24 CFR § 100.70(c)(1)

[5] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(b)

[6] 24 CFR § 100.70(c)(2)

[7] 24 CFR § 100.70(c)(3)

[8] 24 CFR § 100.70(c)(4)

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