Fair Housing Topics

Reasonable Accommodations for People with Disabilities

Disability is defined under the Fair Housing Act as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities.” This definition includes people who have a history of such an impairment, and people perceived as having an impairment. Under the Fair Housing Act, people with physical or mental disabilities are permitted to request reasonable accommodations, or changes in rules, policies, practices or services that are necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to “use and enjoy” housing. It is the responsibility of a landlord, property manager, condominium board or any other housing provider to grant an accommodation request when it is reasonable. Since there is a lack of accessible housing in Pennsylvania, a disabled home seeker’s only option for obtaining an accessible dwelling may be to request a reasonable accommodation.

Examples of accommodations include:

  • Allowing an assistance animal in “no pets” community/housing
  • Lease application in large print
  • Permitting a live-in personal care attendant
  • Transfer to a more accessible unit/community
  • Installation of a reserved marked handicapped parking space

A landlord, property manager, condominium board or any other housing provider may request additional information or documentation to evaluate the reasonableness of a request for an accommodation if the requester has a disability that is not obvious, or the disability-related need for the accommodation is not apparent.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and need help with a reasonable accommodation request, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form

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Reasonable Modifications for People with Disabilities

Disability is defined under the Fair Housing Act as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities.” This definition includes people who have a history of such an impairment, and people perceived as having such an impairment. Reasonable modifications, as defined by the Fair Housing Act, are changes to the physical structure of a dwelling that are necessary to afford a person with a disability full enjoyment of the premises. Since there is a lack of accessible housing throughout Pennsylvania, a disabled home seeker’s only option for obtaining an accessible dwelling may be to request a reasonable modification. If a reasonable request were made for modifications to be completed in an individual unit or in the common area of housing, a housing provider would have to permit the modification.

Examples of modifications include:

  • Widened doorways in unit
  • Grab bars in bathroom or at entrance to unit
  • Removal of below-counter cabinets
  • Installation of wheelchair ramp at entrance to building/unit
  • Replacing door knobs with levers
  • Installation of visual and tactile alert devices

A landlord, property manager, condominium board or any other housing provider may request additional information or documentation to evaluate the reasonableness of a request for a modification if the requester has a disability that is not obvious, or the disability-related need for the modification is not apparent.

In most situations, it would be the tenant’s responsibility to pay for any requested modifications. If a property receives federal financial assistance, then it is the responsibility of the housing provider to pay for the modification. In many instances, this applies to nonprofit housing providers. A landlord may require that modifications be done in a “workmanlike” manner and, if necessary, may ask that a deposit be put in escrow to cover the costs of returning the dwelling to its original condition. A landlord cannot:

  • Dictate a particular contractor
  • Require a particular design concept for aesthetic reasons
  • Place any restrictions upon granting a reasonable modification request

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and need help with a reasonable modification request, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Assistance Animals for People with Disabilities

Disability is defined under the Fair Housing Act as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities.” This definition includes people who have a history of such an impairment, and people perceived as having such an impairment. Many people with disabilities require the use of assistance animals in their daily lives, such as a guide dog for a person who is blind, or a seizure alert dog for a person who suffers from epilepsy. While it is permitted to restrict pets from rental properties or condominiums, it is not lawful to deny a person with a disability the right to possess an assistance animal, as long as the animal’s function has a direct connection to the person’s disability. Assistance animals are different from “pets” under the Fair Housing Act, as their specific role is to assist a person with a disability.

A landlord, property manager, condominium board, or any other housing provider cannot:

  • Deny a person with a disability the right to have an assistance animal, when requested as a reasonable accommodation
  • Deny occupancy or evict a person with a disability because he/she requests an assistance animal
  • Charge extra fees (monthly pet rent, additional deposit) for an assistance animal
  • Stall or delay responding to a request for an assistance animal

A landlord, property manager, condominium board or any other housing provider may request additional information or documentation to evaluate the reasonableness of a request for an assistance animal if the requester has a disability that is not obvious, or the disability-related need for the assistance animal is not apparent.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions regarding assistance animals in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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New Construction Fair Housing Accessibility Requirements

The Fair Housing Act has design and construction requirements that apply to covered multifamily housing built after March 13, 1991. This includes housing that is for rent or for sale, and applies whether the housing is privately or publicly funded. Condominiums and apartment buildings are covered by the design and construction requirements and so are time-shares, dormitories, transitional housing, student housing, assisted living housing and some homeless shelters.

The following multifamily dwellings must comply:

  • All buildings containing four or more dwelling units, if the buildings have one or more elevators
  • All ground-floor units in buildings containing four or more units, without an elevator

The requirements apply to all buildings containing four or more single-story units. In buildings without elevators, only first-floor units must comply. In buildings with elevators, all units must comply. Covered housing must meet the seven design and construction requirements under the Fair Housing Act:

  1. An accessible building entrance on an accessible route
  2. Accessible public and common-use areas
  3. Usable doors (usable by a person in a wheelchair)
  4. An accessible route into and through the dwelling unit
  5. Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations
  6. Reinforced walls in bathrooms for future installation of grab bars
  7. Usable kitchen and bathrooms (usable by a person in a wheelchair)

The Fair Housing Act should not be confused with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA covers public accommodations, while the Fair Housing Act covers housing. Generally, the ADA does NOT apply to residential housing. However, ADA issues arise with the accessibility of common-use areas in residential developments if the facilities are open to persons other than owners, residents and their guests (e.g. sales/rental office, pool, clubhouse and reception room). When determining what laws apply to a building, community or complex, it is important to remember that many federal, state and local codes may cover a housing project.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions regarding the fair housing accessibility requirements, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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National Origin Discrimination

National origin discrimination is different treatment in housing because of a person’s ancestry, ethnicity, birthplace, culture or language, and it is illegal. People cannot be denied housing because they or their family are from another country, because they have a name or accent associated with a national origin group, because they participate in certain customs associated with a national origin group or because they are married to or associate with people of a certain national origin. Potential examples of national origin discrimination include:

  • Offering different rent rates based on ethnicity
  • Selectively screening potential and existing tenants for citizenship and immigration status
  • Refusing to rent to refugees
  • Steering prospective buyers or renters to or away from certain neighborhoods because of their ancestry
  • Failing to provide the same level of service or housing amenities because a tenant was born in another country

Landlords are allowed to request immigration documentation and conduct inquiries to determine whether a potential renter meets the criteria for rental, as long as the same procedure is applied to all potential renters. Under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with a person’s exercise or enjoyment of rights granted or protected by the Fair Housing Act. This includes threats to report a person to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they report housing discrimination to HUD.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions regarding national origin discrimination in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Discrimination Against Families with Children

Unless a building or community qualifies as housing for older persons, it may not discriminate based on familial status. This means that no landlord, property manager, real estate agent or any other housing provider can deny housing to a family with children simply because of the presence of children. Familial status protects:

  • Children under the age of 18 living in the household
  • Pregnant women
  • Any adult who is seeking legal custody of a child under 18

Examples of possible discrimination against families with children include:

  • Denying housing to a family because they have children
  • Segregating housing (having adult and family sections or buildings)
  • Additional fees or charges for families with children
  • Overly restrictive occupancy policies (e.g. a maximum of two people in a four bedroom home)
  • Not allowing children to use the swimming pool or play outside
  • Creating gender-specific rules that do not allow parents and children, or male and female children, to share a bedroom

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about familial status discrimination in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Lead-based Paint and Other “Unsafe” Living Conditions

It is illegal under the Fair Housing Act to not rent to families with children. Case law has stated that a landlord cannot discourage a potential tenant or determine for them that a property is safe or unsafe for their children.

Examples of “unsafe” conditions include:

  • Steep stairways
  • The presence of a balcony
  • Busy streets
  • The presence of dangerous equipment

Case law has determined that it is up to parents to determine if a situation is appropriate for their children, not for the landlord to make that determination for them. The presence of lead-based paint is a similar situation.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about familial status discrimination in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Occupancy and Families with Children

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) states that an occupancy policy of two persons in a bedroom, as a general rule, is reasonable. However, the reasonableness of any occupancy policy is disputable, and each case may be evaluated individually and also be based on factors such as the configuration of the unit (e.g. the presence of a den or small extra room), the overall size of the dwelling, the capacity of septic, sewer or other building systems or the existence of state or local zoning laws. If a landlord or property manager restricts occupancy to just one person per bedroom in a rental unit, this policy may have a negative effect on families with children, and may be considered discriminatory.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about familial status discrimination in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Children and Use of Community Facilities

Families with children are also protected from discrimination in the use of housing facilities, including swimming pools, fitness centers, clubhouses, courtyards or other outdoor areas. Rules that apply only to families with children are often interpreted as discriminatory. However, rules and regulations can be allowed that uphold the health and safety of children in housing facilities.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about familial status discrimination in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Per Capita Charges and Households with Children

Per capita charges are “per person” fees that require larger households to pay more for housing than a household without children (e.g. $750 for two people and $50 for each additional occupant up to six). Per capita charges more readily affect families with children since, in the typical case, differences in the number of individuals in a household are related to the number of children in the family. If a housing provider can offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory justification for the policy, then it may be permissible.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about familial status discrimination in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Senior Housing (55+ Communities) and Families with Children

Communities that qualify as housing for older persons are exempt from the prohibition against familial status discrimination if:

  • The HUD Secretary has determined that it is specifically designed for and occupied by elderly persons under a federal, state or local government program;
  • It is 100% occupied by persons 62 or older; or
  • It houses at least one person 55 or older in at least 80% of the occupied units, and adheres to a policy that demonstrates an intent to house persons 55 or older.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about familial status discrimination in housing, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Discriminatory Advertising

Section 3604(c) of the Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to make, print or publish, or cause to be made, printed or published, any notice, statement or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling, that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination.

The Fair Housing Act stipulates that it is unlawful to print or publish discriminatory advertisements for the sale or rental of housing units that indicate any preference on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin. This applies not only to newspapers, magazines, radio and television, but also to advertising agencies, sales firms, real estate professionals and management companies. If it is found that a classified advertisement, display advertisement, insert or any other type of real estate advertisement is published with discriminatory language, the person or agency that placed the advertisement is liable, along with the publisher that printed the advertisement.

Generally, a housing advertisement should describe the property itself, and not the potential occupant. For example, an advertisement for a housing unit stating “no children” would be considered discriminatory, as it limits families with children from occupying that unit and therefore violates the familial status provision of the Fair Housing Act. If it is found that an advertisement is indeed discriminatory, both the publisher and the advertiser can be held liable.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about advertising and fair housing compliance, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Sexual Harassment and Discrimination

Historically, the courts have recognized two types of sexual harassment as a form of discrimination that violates the Fair Housing Act. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is when a housing provider or agent imposes conditions on housing based on a victim’s submission to sexual conduct. (e.g. rent in exchange for sex). Hostile environment sexual harassment is when a housing provider or agent engages in sexual behavior that severely alters the terms or conditions of tenancy that result in a hostile living environment for the victim (e.g. refusing to make repairs because a tenant refused sexual advances). Regardless of whether or not the victim experienced a loss of a housing opportunity or economic loss, claims may be filed to report incidences of sexual harassment.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about sexual harassment or discrimination, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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LGBT Discrimination and HUD Equal Access Rule

The Federal Fair Housing Act does not specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. However, in some situations, an LGBT person’s experience with housing discrimination may still be covered by the Fair Housing Act as discrimination based on gender (e.g. a landlord refusing housing simply based on the gender of an occupant’s spouse). Many local jurisdictions throughout Pennsylvania have enacted local anti-discrimination ordinances that protect equal access to housing based on marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, source of income and other protected classes.

In 2012, HUD published regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status in HUD programs. As a result, housing providers that receive HUD funding and/or have loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), as well as FHA insured lenders, must ensure that LGBT persons have equal access to HUD-funded services.

The LGBT Equal Access rule applies to all HUD-funded programs, including the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), public housing, Community Development Block Grants, Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA), Supportive Housing for the Elderly and Persons with a Disability and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured loans. The rule does not apply to private housing providers who do not receive HUD funding. The rule clarifies the definition of family and household. The clarification is critical because these definitions identify who is eligible to participate in a HUD-funded program. The rule has no impact on other program eligibility requirements (e.g. income qualification, annual certification, family member’s names on lease, etc.).

New definitions:

  • Sexual orientation: homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality
  • Gender identity: actual or perceived gender-related characteristics
  • Family and household: includes persons regardless of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status

The rule also prohibits inquiries about the sexual orientation or gender identity of an applicant or occupant for the purpose of determining eligibility or otherwise making housing available. It does not prohibit any individual from voluntarily self-identifying sexual orientation or gender identity. HUD-funded programs can inquire about the sex of an applicant or occupant where the housing provided, or to be provided, is a temporary, emergency shelter that involves the sharing of sleeping areas or bathrooms. HUD programs can make inquiries about the sex of an applicant or occupant for the purpose of determining the number of bedrooms to which the household may be entitled.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about sex discrimination, local anti-discrimination ordinances or the HUD LGBT Equal Access rule, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Zoning and Land Use

According to the Fair Housing Act, a dwelling includes “any building, structure, or portion thereof which is occupied as, or designed or intended for occupancy as, a residence by one or more families, and any vacant land which is offered for sale or lease for the construction or location thereon of any such building, structure, or portion thereof.” Therefore, decisions related to the development or use of such land may not be based upon the race, sex, religion, national origin, color, disability or familial status of the residents or potential residents who may live in the dwelling.

Prohibited activities under the Fair Housing Act:

  • A municipality may not reject a proposed affordable housing development or a group home in response to neighbors’ fears that racial minorities will occupy such housing
  • A municipality may not require neighbor notification or a public hearing only for the development of affordable housing or group homes, but not other types of residential development
  • A municipality may not impose spacing requirements on group homes for persons with disabilities
  • A municipality may not require additional studies or procedural steps or unnecessarily delay decision-making when considering a development that may be occupied by members of the protected classes

In addition to prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities, the Fair Housing Act also makes it unlawful to refuse to make “reasonable accommodations” or changes to rules, policies, practices or services, when such accommodations are necessary to allow persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use or enjoy a dwelling. Unless a municipality can prove that an accommodation request is unreasonable, the municipality must grant the accommodation.

There is an exemption to the Fair Housing Act that applies to zoning and land use. Housing for older persons (80% of the units are occupied by at least one person over the age of 55 or 100% of occupants are age 62 or older) is exempt from the portion of the Fair Housing Act that prohibits discrimination against families with children. According to the Housing for Older Persons Act, a housing facility or community for older persons may include “a municipally zoned area.” Therefore, although a municipality would be prohibited under the Fair Housing Act from making a zoning or land-use decision based on the presence of families with children residing in a dwelling or proposed development, any area zoned specifically for housing for older persons would be exempt from this prohibition.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about fair housing and zoning and land use decisions, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Homeowners Insurance

Homeowners insurance is coverage that protects you against losses from damage to the physical structure of your home and its contents. Discrimination in homeowners insurance occurs when an insurance company or agent unlawfully treats current or prospective homeowners differently because of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex or disability, or because they have children in their family. Homeowners insurance discrimination may include:

  • Charging higher rates
  • Offering policies with inferior coverage
  • Not returning calls for information
  • Denying coverage altogether

Homeowners insurance “redlining” is a form of discrimination in which an insurance company or agent treats homeowners differently because of the race or national origin of residents in the neighborhood where their home is located. Insurance redlining may include:

  • Imposing different terms and conditions for insuring homes in minority neighborhoods
  • Refusing to write policies for homes in minority neighborhoods
  • Offering inferior policies in minority neighborhoods
  • Discouraging applicants from minority neighborhoods

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about fair housing and homeowners insurance, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

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Penalties for Fair Housing Violations

Fair housing complaints can be filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for up to one year from the incident, or with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for up to 180 days from the incident. In addition, a lawsuit can be filed in Federal Court for up to two years. Discrimination victims can be awarded out-of-pocket costs incurred while obtaining alternative housing and any additional costs associated with that housing. Non-economic damages for humiliation, mental anguish or other psychological injuries may also be levied. In cases tried before a HUD Administrative Law Judge, civil penalties of up to $16,000 for a first violation, increasing to $65,000 for third violations, may be imposed. In cases brought by the Justice Department, the civil penalties can be up to $150,000.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about the legal and administrative complaint process or about penalties for noncompliance or other fair housing topics, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

Exemptions to the Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act applies to most housing. There are a few exemptions to the Fair Housing Act:

  • A dwelling with four or fewer units, if the owner lives in one of the units – however, it is important to note that these dwellings are not exempt from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act unless they contain only two units, with one being owner occupied.
  • Single family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, if the private individual owner does not own more than three such single-family homes at one time

In addition, religious organizations and private clubs can give preference to members if they don’t discriminate in their membership.

A community qualifies as housing for older persons and is exempt from the prohibition against familial status discrimination if: 1) HUD has determined that it is specifically designed for and occupied by elderly persons under a federal, state or local government program; 2) it is 100% occupied by persons 62 or older; or 3) it houses at least one person 55 or older in at least 80% of the occupied units, and adheres to a policy that demonstrates an intent to house persons 55 or older.

There are no exemptions to the advertising provision of the Fair Housing Act which stipulates that you cannot make, print or publish a discriminatory statement. And no one is exempt from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits all racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions on exemptions or other fair housing topics, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.

PO BOX 558, Fort Washington, PA 19034
866-540-FAIR | 267-419-8918
info@equalhousing.org