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What Is “National Origin” Discrimination in Housing?

It’s illegal for landlords in the U.S. to discriminate against tenants based on which part of the world their family comes from—which includes profiling applicants based on their accent or limited English skills.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal law, protects tenants across the United States against illegal discrimination. The FHA bans discrimination based on seven “protected classes”—groups of people who all share particular personal characteristics. One of these protected classes is “national origin,” which refers to the region a tenant’s family comes from. This prevents landlords from rejecting applicants because their grandparents immigrated from Africa, for instance or showing preferential treatment towards tenants of European descent.

Discrimination based on national origin can be explicit—or more subtle

Some landlords flatly refuse to rent to tenants based on their national origin. For example, a Minnesota landlord told a Mexican-American couple that was trying to lease a lot at his mobile home park that he did "not want any more Mexicans" living there because they were "too much trouble” and disparaged them by referring to them as “wetbacks.” The couple filed a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) based on national origin. HUD charged the landlord with discrimination and sent the case to an administrative law judge for a hearing.1

Many landlords, however, engage in more subtle forms of discrimination, such as:

  • Prioritizing applicants on their waiting list based on national origin
  • Setting different rents for tenants based on national origin
  • Steering tenants of different national origins to apartments in different areas of their building
  • Prioritizing repair requests based on a tenant’s national origin
  • Making exceptions to rules or offering amenities only to tenants of certain national origins
  • Considering a tenant’s national origin before pursuing eviction

It’s still a violation of the FHA if a landlord treats their tenants differently because of their national origin, even if they don’t immediately turn them away.2

National origin is different than citizenship status

National origin does not cover citizenship or immigration issues. Although the FHA does not protect non-citizens,3 some municipalities do. For example, New York City’s Human Rights Law includes the additional protected class of “alienage and citizenship status.” This means landlords cannot, for instance, have a policy of renting only to U.S. citizens.

It’s illegal for landlords to profile potential tenants

When handling inquiries from potential tenants, some landlords make assumptions about applicants based on their names. Some landlords also engage in linguistic profiling, which leads them to ignore inquiries from certain applicants based on their accent or grammar. By profiling applicants, these landlords are considering their national origin—a violation of the FHA.4

Landlords can’t penalize tenants for limited English proficiency

Depending on a tenant’s national origin and length of time living in the United States, their English skills may be limited. HUD has warned landlords against discriminating by using tenants’ limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English as a pretext for discrimination based on national origin.5 For example, landlords who refuse to talk to applicants through an interpreter or have a blanket policy of refusing non-native English speakers risk fair housing violations.

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 national origin 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.

Next steps

National origin is just one of the Fair Housing Act's seven protected classes. Learn more about the others—including racial discrimination, which often overlaps with discrimination based on national origin.

[1] Sec. v. Jensen, FHEO No. 05-10-0160-8 (August 8, 2012)

[2] 42 U.S.C. § 3604

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 3604

[4] 42 U.S.C. § 3604

[5] "Office of General Counsel Guidance on Fair Housing Act Protections for Persons with Limited English Proficiency," HUD, 2016

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