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Understanding Racial Discrimination in Housing

The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants based on their race and the color of their skin.

Tenants across the U.S. are protected against illegal discrimination thanks to a federal law called the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA stops landlords from treating tenants differently based on certain characteristics, commonly known as “protected classes.” Two of these protected classes, race and color, ensure that tenants aren't treated differently based on their race or skin color.

"Race" and "color" are similar—but there's an important difference

At first glance, it may seem confusing that the FHA lists both "race" and "color" as protected classes. What's the difference? Color exists as its own protected class to cover situations where it might be hard to prove that a landlord singles out tenants of a certain race—but it's clear that they are discriminating against tenants who have dark skin. Tenants who believe they are the victims of racial discrimination can cover their bases by filing a fair housing complaint based on both race and color.1

Racial discrimination can be obvious, but not always

Some instances of racial discrimination are blatant. In 2019, for instance, a landlord in Plano, Texas posted an ad for an apartment that required applicants to state their race and send a photo of themselves. Although a black applicant refused to comply, the landlord still agreed to meet her. After the landlord discovered that she was black, he refused to rent the apartment to her, citing his concern about the comfort of the other tenants in the building. The applicant filed a fair housing complaint with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) based on race. HUD charged the landlord with racial discrimination.2

Although overt racial discrimination persists today, it's more likely to occur in a more subtle form, such as when a landlord:

  • Adds nonwhite applicants’ names to the bottom of their waiting list
  • Sets a higher rent for nonwhite tenants
  • Steers tenants to apartments in certain parts of their building based on their race
  • Prioritizes repair requests from white tenants
  • Makes exceptions to rules or offers amenities only to white tenants
  • Considers a tenant’s race before pursuing eviction

In each one of these examples, the landlord is not flatly refusing to rent to anyone. It's still illegal discrimination, however, because the landlord is making housing decisions based on tenants’ race or color.3

It’s also illegal for landlords to racially discriminate against tenants’ guests

Landlords can't stop their tenants from spending time with people of other races.4 Courts have found landlords guilty of violating the FHA for expressing discomfort with white tenants inviting black guests to their apartment and for banning tenants from having interracial relationships. This sort of behavior is illegal under the FHA even though a landlord does not have an issue with a tenant’s own race.

Tenants should also check state and local fair housing laws

Many states—and even cities—have passed their own fair housing laws that protect tenants from racial discrimination in housing. These laws give tenants more options for pursuing justice, since a tenant can file a fair housing complaint on either the federal or state level.

Next steps

Race and color are just two of the Fair Housing Act's seven protected classes. Learn more about the others—including discrimination based on national origin, which often overlaps with racial discrimination.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(b)

[2] Sec. V. Dangtran, FHEO No. 06-17-7384-8 (June 25, 2019)

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(b)

[4] 24 CFR § 100.65(b)(4)

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.