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.
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 This is a violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), even if a landlord hasn’t imposed an outright ban on renting to certain types of people. If a landlord discourages you based on your race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status, it’s illegal because such steering unfairly limits your housing choices.2
“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 negative when showing or describing apartments to you on account of your race, religion, or other protected class, they are violating the FHA.3
“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.4
“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.5
In a real-life example, 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.6
 U.S. v. J & R Associates, Civil Action No. 15-11748 (D. Mass. 2015)
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.