The Fair Housing Act (FHA) outlaws discrimination against tenants based on certain personal characteristics, commonly known as “protected classes.” The FHA added “familial status” as a protected class in 1989 to make sure that families with children aren’t treated differently when renting. Unless a building qualifies as a senior community, landlords can’t refuse to rent to families with children (or give preference to tenants without them). Also, landlords generally can’t single out families in their rules—unless they protect children's health and safety.
“Familial status” protects all children under 18, plus pregnant tenants
The term “familial status” refers to the presence of at least one child under 18. As long as there is a child, it makes no difference if the adults (or adult—single parents are also protected) in the household are the child’s biological parents, legal guardians, or designees. In addition, a family that is expecting a child, through pregnancy or adoption, is also protected.1 This means, for instance, that a landlord can’t decide to evict a tenant simply because they find out she’s pregnant.
Landlords can’t impose different occupancy limits on families
Some landlords have their own opinions about occupancy that may conflict with what their tenants want. For example, a landlord might believe that children shouldn’t share a bedroom with their parents. But if that landlord is willing to rent a studio apartment to two adult roommates but not to a single parent with a child, the family will unfairly lose that housing option—and may be forced to rent a more expensive one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment.
To avoid fair housing violations, landlords should follow any applicable state and local occupancy requirements that specify how many occupants are allowed to live in an apartment.2 The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) noted in 1998 that two people per bedroom is generally a reasonable standard—although what's considered reasonable could change depending on the overall size of an apartment and the number and size of its bedrooms.3
Landlords can single out children in their rules, as long as it’s a safety issue
Singling out tenants based on a protected class is normally a fair housing violation. However, when it comes to familial status, landlords are allowed to make rules that restrict children from activities at their building—but only if those rules are legitimately aimed at protecting their health and safety.4 For example, rules that require adult supervision of children at swimming pools and playgrounds do single out children but don't necessarily violate the FHA.
That said, the rules must be specific and based on sound reasoning. In 2002, tenants filed a fair housing complaint against an Idaho landlord, claiming that a rule banning children under 17 from using the pool unless accompanied by a parent discriminated against families with children. HUD ruled that the rule violated the FHA, noting that state law allowed children 13 and older to use public swimming pools without adult supervision.5
It’s still discrimination, even if a landlord is well-intentioned
Some landlords dislike children or have had problems renting to families with children in the past. Others are happy to rent to families with children, but don’t think they should rent apartments at their building—perhaps the grounds are hazardous or the building lacks kid-friendly amenities. Regardless, a landlord can't limit tenants’ choices simply because they have children.6
Owners of senior housing can legally refuse to rent to tenants with children
Landlords whose buildings qualify as senior housing are exempt from the FHA’s familial status discrimination ban and may turn applicants away because they have children. To qualify, a building’s occupants must either all be 62 and over (in 100% of apartments), 55 and over (in 80% of apartments), or the building must participate in a federal, state, or local senior housing program. If a building fails to meet the requirements of a senior housing program, the landlord is then subject to the FHA’s familial status ban and cannot turn away families with children.7
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 familial status discrimination in housing. These additional laws offer tenants more options for pursuing justice, since a tenant can file a fair housing complaint on either the federal or state level.
Familial status is just one of the Fair Housing Act's seven protected classes. Learn more about the others—including race, national origin, and disability.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.