Every year, close to 30,000 cases of housing discrimination are reported by people across the country. Even more go unacknowledged and unreported—don’t let yours become one of them. If you think your landlord (or one of their associates) have violated fair housing laws, you’re well within your rights to file a complaint with a government agency.
But pursuing a fair housing complaint against a landlord can end up being stressful and time-consuming, so you should understand how the process works before jumping in. Here’s what to do if you think you’ve been discriminated against as a renter.
1. Decide whether to file a complaint or a lawsuit—or both
This guide focuses specifically on filing a fair housing complaint, but you actually have two options when it comes to fighting discrimination: filing a complaint through an administrative agency or taking your landlord to court.
Your choice should be based on your ideal outcome. Do you want to rent a specific apartment that you were originally denied because of your race or religion? Then your best bet is to file a complaint. Do you want to be awarded monetary damages for emotional distress caused by a landlord’s sexual harassment? In that case, a lawsuit would likely be more effective. (Also, these aren’t mutually exclusive—you can sue your landlord and file a complaint simultaneously.)
2. Pursue your complaint on either a local or national level
Federal law protects you from discrimination based on seven protected classes. But many states, counties, and cities have also passed their own fair housing laws—and sometimes these laws protect people from discrimination based on additional characteristics, such as sexual orientation, age, or immigration status.
If the discrimination you experienced is only illegal on a state or city level, then you’ll have to go through local agencies. If it’s based on one of the national protected classes, such as gender or national origin, then you have a choice—you could contact agencies at either the state or national level. (You could even file complaints with both.) Pursuing a claim on the state level can often be easier, quicker, and offer more robust options for obtaining relief.
3. Pay attention to deadlines
Keep in mind that you only have a year after the incident to file a complaint through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which enforces federal fair housing laws. Typically the timeline is the same for state-level agencies, as well. The department recommends filing as soon as possible, however.
4. Gather any supporting evidence
Before proceeding with a fair housing complaint, pull together any letters, emails, or texts you sent or received from your landlord about the issue. Take a moment to write down the details about the incident, including a description of what happened, the names and titles of all parties involved, important dates, and whether the discrimination is still happening.
5. File your complaint online, by phone, or by mail
Filing a fair housing complaint with HUD doesn't take much time and can be done online, by phone, or by mail. You don't need to pay fees or hire an attorney to do so, either. If you're on the fence about whether or not what you've experienced qualifies as housing discrimination, go ahead and file the complaint—HUD will determine if it's valid as part of the vetting process.
Shortly after you file, a HUD intake specialist will contact you to discuss your potential claim. If they decide to pursue it, you'll need to sign a formal complaint and cooperate with HUD’s investigators.
6. Contact HUD for extra help with your complaint
If you’re having trouble filing your complaint, you can contact your regional HUD Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) office—locate yours here. You can also get in touch with organizations that participate in HUD’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program to ask more questions about the process.
7. Expect your case to proceed in stages over several months
If you allow HUD pursue your fair housing complaint, be prepared for a process that could take several months (if not longer). There are several steps a case may take as it proceeds, and you'll be asked to make decisions along the way—including whether to let an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) or a federal district judge hear your case, and whether you would agree to settle with your landlord.
If an ALJ hears your case, the judge may order the landlord to pay a civil penalty, actual damages and attorneys' fees. To get more detailed information about all the steps involved, visit HUD’s website.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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