How Victims of Discrimination Can File Complaints for Fair Housing
If you think you have experienced housing discrimination, you are not alone. Although this pernicious practice was banned more than half a century ago, discrimination remains a problem in the housing market, affecting renters, buyers and borrowers trying to obtain mortgages.
In 2020, 28,712 housing discrimination complaints were filed, according to the most recent report of the National Fair Housing Alliance. And that’s probably only a fraction of the total number of victims. Many do not know if they have been treated unfairly or do not know that laws may have been broken. Others might not pursue filing a complaint because they don’t know where to start or are intimidated by the process.
It’s important for renters and homebuyers to know that the law is on their side. Federal housing law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (gender), marital status, and disability nationwide. It also encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity. This makes it illegal for lenders to charge someone more for a mortgage, for real estate agents to direct buyers to neighborhoods where agents think buyers belong, or for landlords to refuse to rent an apartment in someone who is a member of one of the protected classes. .
In some cities and states, there are additional protected classes, making it illegal in those areas to deny someone housing because of their U.S. citizenship status, how they make their money, or their age. .
Those who believe they have been treated unfairly have recourse. Below are the steps they should (and shouldn’t) take if they feel they have been discriminated against when looking for a home or loan.
Don’t name the culprit
Experiencing housing discrimination is usually a very emotional situation. For victims, it is natural to want to confront the person who discriminates against them. However, confrontation can make everything worse.
Confrontation often puts offending parties on high alert – they usually become more apt to be on the lookout for a potential investigation and to adopt their best behavior. This could make it harder for victims to prove their case if they plan to pursue other actions.
“It’s counterintuitive, but if you’re going to file a fair housing complaint, keep it to yourself,” says Pam Kischexecutive director of the Fair Housing Center of Southeast & Mid Michigan in Ypsilanti, MI.
“It’s very difficult to have a fair housing complaint investigated when the offending party knows that you may recognize the discrimination and you intend to do something about it,” adds Kisch.
Most of the time, fair housing complaints start at the local level. While there are a variety of ways someone can file a fair housing complaint, including going to federal court, vital information must be gathered before the case can move forward.
A Fair Housing Center, which is usually a locally run non-profit organization, is the best place to help start this process. The center will assign someone to help with the filing process and provide additional resources to help make a case.
Notably, Fair Housing Centers do not have the power or authority to take legal action if discrimination is found. However, they do have the resources to connect victims with someone to guide them through filing a complaint with a federal or state fair housing agency. They can also help collect evidence.
Those who do not know where to find a fair housing center can contact the National Fair Housing Alliance. The website offers a list of nonprofit organizations across the country to help people find the nearest center.
If there is no local organization, victims can file a complaint directly on the site of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning. HUD is the federal agency that has the ability to take action if its investigators find that discrimination has occurred. Many complaints filed with local fair housing centers end up being filed with HUD.
Learn about the evidence collection process
Once victims have found an appropriate fair housing organization, the next step is to ask how the organization gathers evidence for a fair housing case. Specifically, it helps to know if the organization conducts experimental testing, which can help determine if discrimination has occurred.
During fair housing tests, undercover testers will do their best to recreate a scenario like the one experienced by the victim. For example, for a racial discrimination complaint against a real estate agent, the testing center may send a few different groups of undercover testers with different racial backgrounds. The testers then posed as potential buyers and recorded their interactions with the real estate agent to see if any individuals were treated differently and filmed it.
Unfortunately, cases of discrimination can often be subjective. It can be difficult to know if someone is breaking the law or simply incompetent. Having experimental testing on the victim side provides additional evidence for a case. Another obstacle is that it is rare to have tangible evidence of discrimination, such as text messages or written letters.
The HUD does not perform the same type of test. Instead, he questions the victims about what happened. Then, it usually asks for any documentation, such as emails or text messages, as well as cookies. If HUD investigators find a probable cause of discrimination, they will instruct the offending party to ask a series of similar questions.
Decide how to pursue the complaint
Once all available evidence has been compiled, it is up to the victim to decide how to proceed with their case. Victims have a range of options.
Attempting mediation with the offending party: Fair Housing Centers and HUD offer opportunities for mediation. During mediation, victims sit down with a neutral third party and attempt to reach a settlement of the case. Frankly, fair housing experts say this option rarely works. Still, they suggest it’s a viable path forward, especially for those who want to keep the incident out of the court system.
Pursue legal action through a fair housing agency: Those who do not want to pursue mediation can take legal action. Most of the time, this means filing a complaint with HUD and going through the interview process described above. Then it goes before a judge.
The vast majority of HUD cases are decided by an administrative law judge, who will make a decision, rather than going to federal court, say fair housing experts. Cases brought to court usually involve large groups of people, rather than a single specific case of discrimination. Yet, if the case is large enough to become a federal case, the fair housing agency working on it will often become the plaintiff on behalf of the victim.
Contact a private lawyer: Victims also have the option of connecting with a private attorney. Often a lawyer can help seek a personal settlement, which means the offender may have to pay the victim a sum of money, and a lawyer can take the offending party to a local court. However, this can be expensive.
“If you go through a fair housing agency, it will be free to pursue a discrimination complaint,” says Steve Dane of Dane Law, a firm specializing in fair housing and civil rights cases in Perrysburg, OH. “On the other hand, a lawyer will probably charge you for a consultation and to represent you in court.”
Fortunately, in most cases victims will only be responsible for paying their own attorney fees. That said, if a judge decides the case is frivolous, the victims may also be ordered to pay the defendant’s fees.