Fair Housing: The Basics

In this guide, you'll learn the basics of fair housing laws and how to avoid claims of discrimination.

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Protected classes
Common fair housing violations
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Exemptions from the federal Fair Housing Act
What are reasonable accommodations?


You can't discriminate against Tenants in a "protected class" - this includes, without limitation, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status.  Federal, state, and local definitions keep changing, so check the source if you're in doubt whether these apply to you (or ask us).  If you treat applicants or Tenants differently based upon a protected class, you're likely violating fair housing laws.

What classes are protected from rental discrimination?

Federal, state, and local definitions of "protected class" aren't always the same.  The list keeps growing, but here's a few of the common ones:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Familial status
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Citizenship
  • Age
  • Veteran or military status
  • Genetic information
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity or expression
  • Source of income
  • Criminal history

Local laws may extend protected classes to other people.

What are common ways Landlords violate fair housing laws?

There are lots of ways to discriminate on housing issues.  Here's a few:

  1. Advertising - Making statements or showing images that suggest a preference based on a protected class.
  2. Screening - Refusing to accept applications, discouraging applicants, or falsely reporting that a unit is unavailable.  Use a consistent screening process and rental application.
  3. Accommodations - Limiting a Tenant's access to certain portions of the unit, or failing to make reasonable accommodations to a person with disabilities.

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Property exempt from the federal Fair Housing Act

Discriminating is bad and discriminatory advertising is always illegal.  Even so, there are exceptions to certain fair housing laws:

  1. Owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units.
  2. Single-family homes rented without advertising or without a real estate agent.
  3. Certain housing operated by religious organizations or private clubs.

Illinois protects may extend to exceptions carved out by the federal fair housing laws.  If you're not sure whether your deal is exempt, run it by us.

What are reasonable accommodations?

You must make reasonable accommodations for Tenants with disabilities.  A reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service. The purpose of a reasonable accommodation or modification is to provide equal access to housing for people with disabilities (dive deeper here).  

If you know the Tenant has a disability, there is no duty to investigate what accommodations (if any) are needed.  The Tenant must make the request for a reasonable accommodation which you evaluate on a case-by-case basis.  And don't ignore the request - this may be considered a denial.

If a Tenant requested an accommodation and you're not sure if it qualifies, let's chat.


Can I ask for proof if a Tenant makes an accommodation request?  If the Tenant's disability is clear, then don't ask for proof of the disability (ex. amputee in a wheelchair asks for a ramp).  If the Tenant's disability isn't obvious, then you can ask for proof (ex. emotional support animal in a "no pets" unit).  And don't ask for the details - simply get verification of the disability from a reliable professional. 

Can I limit the number of Tenants?  I's tough to say.  If the limitation has a "disparate impact" on a protected class, then it's discrimination.  You can set reasonable limits, but confirm these don't discrimination.  Check out the Keating Memorandum as a guide. And never limit the number of children allowed to occupy the property.


Rental Application

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Fair Housing Act - 42 U.S.C. 3601
Illinois Human Rights Act - 775 ILCS 5/

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This article is for general information purposes only and should not be considered legal advice or legal opinion on any specific case and/or circumstance.  This article does not create an attorney/client relationship.  No guarantee for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.  The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should be based solely on advertisements.

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