Fair Housing Protections for Short-Term Renters
By Nick Adjami and Susie McClannahan
November 7, 2022
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on seven protected classes: race, color, national origin, religion, disability, familial status, and sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity). Some states, counties, and cities have additional protections. For example, city law in Washington, DC prohibits housing discrimination based on twelve additional characteristics, including age and marital status. These protections are crucial to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to live where they want to live. But for some renters, it can be difficult to parse whether the Fair Housing Act and other housing laws apply to their living situation.
For renters with a lease, the answer is usually a clear-cut yes, fair housing laws apply (though there may be exceptions for some small-time landlords). For shorter-term stays, there’s more nuance. For example, housing discrimination laws generally do not apply to hotel stays, where the guest is only visiting temporarily and has a primary residence elsewhere, or to overnight shelters. To summarize, if the property serves as your primary residence, there’s a good chance fair housing laws apply. Nevertheless, some housing providers who specialize in short-term rentals may try to skirt the laws.
Last year, the ERC initiated an investigation into Harrington Housing, a housing provider in DC that markets its properties to students and young professionals. The company rents out whole apartment units as well as individual bedrooms within apartments. The investigation involved using trained testers to pose as interested renters in order to gather information about possible discrimination. Through our investigation, we found evidence that Harrington Housing may be discriminating based on disability, familial status, sex, age, and marital status.
Both the Fair Housing Act and DC Human Rights Act prohibit housing discrimination based on disability. People with disabilities have a right to request changes, called reasonable accommodations, to a housing provider’s usual policy or practice that allow them equal access to and enjoyment of the property. A common request is for a person with a disability to be allowed to have a service animal or emotional support animal reside with them. Yet, during testing conducted by the ERC, Harrington Housing agents told ERC testers that they could not rent a bedroom in a shared apartment if they had an emotional support animal or service animal. When one tester inquired further about the possibility of renting an entire unit, the company did not meaningfully respond to their emails.
The Fair Housing Act and DC Human Rights Act also prohibit housing discrimination based on familial status. Familial status refers to the presence of children under the age of 18 in a household, which means that discrimination against families with children is illegal. During our investigation into Harrington Housing, an ERC tester disclosed that she was looking for housing for her and her baby. The Harrington Housing agents said she couldn’t rent a shared apartment because of her baby and would have to rent a full apartment, which would be much more expensive.
In addition, the Fair Housing Act and DC Human Rights contain protections against housing discrimination on the basis of sex. Harrington Housing’s website advertised some units for rent as “Female Only” or “Male only”, which could violate those protections.
The DC Human Rights Act prohibits housing discrimination based on age, but during our investigation, one Harrington Housing agent told an ERC tester that they only rent to individuals between the ages of 18 to 35. The Act also prohibits discrimination based on marital status, but Harrington Housing’s website states that “rooms are single occupancy only. We may suggest our entire apartment options (one bedroom or studio) for couples, available at limited locations.”
If you believe you may have experienced housing discrimination, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-234-3062.
The information contained in this publication is not legal advice and should not be construed as such. For legal advice, please contact an attorney.
If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email email@example.com.