Housing discrimination continues to be a serious problem plaguing renters, homebuyers, and homeowners throughout America.
There were more than 31,200 fair housing complaints filed in 2021, the most recent year where data was available, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance’s 2022 Fair Housing Trends Report. That was the most complaints filed in at least 25 years. The majority, 82%, involved rentals.
“Housing discrimination is pervasive in housing markets across the country,” says Morgan Williams, general counsel of NFHA. “Discrimination is significantly underreported. It’s hard to get good data.”
In 1968, the federal Fair Housing Act was passed to make the rampant discrimination in the housing market illegal. It initially protected people based on race, color, national origin, and religion. Familial status, disability, and sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, have since been added as protected classes.
This is meant to ensure that everyone is treated equally when renting or buying homes, receiving home loans or insurance, and having their homes appraised. However, people are still being denied housing based on their race or sexual orientation, and pregnant women are being denied mortgages.
The NFHA commissioned a report in 2004 that estimated that there were likely more than 3 million fair housing violations against Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans in the rental and for-sale housing market. This didn’t include violations against other protected groups or in the mortgage, appraisal, and other facets of the real estate industry. When adding those in, he expects there are more than 4 million victims of housing discrimination a year.
Much of the discrimination goes unreported. Many people don’t realize they are victims or are unaware of how to file a fair housing complaint. Those who do often face an uphill battle in proving that they are victims. And some worry about losing their housing if they complain.
“It is a real problem in the market,” says Williams.
What are the most common fair housing complaints?
The bulk of the fair housing complaints received in 2021 were related to disability, according to the NFHA report. These made up about 54.2% of complaints. It was followed by race, familial status, sex, national origin, color, and religion. The report captured complaints filed with nonprofit fair housing organizations and government agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“There is still a tremendous amount of ignorance, as well as conscious and unconscious bias regarding people who are differently abled,” says Stephen Beard. He is an Oakland, CA, real estate agent with Keller Williams who specializes in working with people with disabilities. “Some landlords and other decision-makers do the minimum they can get away with.”
Some of the issues faced by those in the disabled community include being denied rentals because of the way they are perceived, not receiving reasonable accommodations for ramps, chairlifts, and closer parking spaces, as well as landlords not allowing service support animals. Sometimes light fixtures and countertops are out of reach for those in wheelchairs, or kitchens aren’t wide enough to accommodate a chair.
“There simply is not enough accessible housing stock for people with physical challenges, as well as bias against people with cognitive challenges such as autism or who have mental health issues,” says Beard. Many people “can’t find housing. If they have housing, they sometimes can’t afford to move or make their own homes accessible.”
Securing housing is also often a challenge for members of protected classes. For example, families might report that their landlords illegally prohibit their children from accessing amenities in their complexes. People of color are denied mortgages or charged higher fees for loans compared with white borrowers with similar financial pictures. Transgender renters report being evicted due to their gender identity.
“Housing affects absolutely everything you do,” says Marlene Zarfes, executive director of Westchester Residential Opportunities. The civil rights agency works on fair housing complaints in Westchester County, NY, which is located just north of New York City. “If you don’t have suitable housing, how do you get to your job? How do your kids go to school?”