In searching for a new home, either through lease or purchase, people have the right to consider almost any property that interests them. Laws on the books, some for more than 130 years, guarantee that right.
Federal law prohibits many forms of discrimination. The federal Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibits discrimination in the rental or purchase of privately owned real estate on the basis of race. Over 100 years later, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 extends that protection to include skin color, religion, sex, family status, national origin or handicap.
Most states, including Mississippi, have fair housing acts that expand the federal laws, and some communities have local ordinances. The city attorney or city clerk's office can provide information on local laws.
A 1962 federal Executive Order also prohibits such discrimination as described above at all federally owned, operated, or assisted housing. This includes all public, Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Veterans Administration (VA), and Farmers Home Administration (FHA) housing.
A landlord, owner or realtor cannot treat a person unfairly or unequally at any stage of the rental or purchase of a residence. He or she cannot withhold information, refuse to show a place, make a person pay more for the residence, or deny services on the basis of any illegal discrimination. The landlord or owner also cannot use an advertisement or application which indicates an intent to discriminate.
Exceptions to these laws do exist, generally concerning small-scale landlords. One example would be a landlord who lives on premises that have four or fewer rental units. Organizations like clubs that rent to their members on a noncommercial basis are also exempt.
Landlords and owners can refuse to rent or sell for other legitimate reasons. A landlord may refuse to lease an apartment to a prospective tenant with a large dog. Homeowners may reject a person's bid for economic reasons, such as the buyer's poor credit rating. Only the discriminations outlined in the law are illegal bases for refusing to rent or sell.
A person who believes that a landlord is illegally discriminating may choose between two legal paths. The tenant may file an administrative complaint with the Fair Housing Division of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Another option is to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit. Both may require the landlord to rent the desired unit to the tenant and/or pay damages either as compensation to the tenant or as a penalty for discriminating.
For the complainant, the administrative course requires only time and effort while hiring an attorney and filing suit can be a costly endeavor. If the tenant's goal is to rent the unit, the former is the wiser route to take while the latter is if receiving large punitive damages is the aim.
Time limits do exist for filing a complaint. A person must file a complaint on the federal level within 180 days of the discrimination. State law requires shorter time periods.
In Mississippi, to lodge a complaint or obtain further information, contact HUD's Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Division; 100 West Capitol Street, Suite 910; Jackson, MS 39269, or telephone (601) 965-4762. You may also call the toll-free HUD Housing Discrimination Hotline at 1-800-669-9777.