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RENTAL SAVVY

Rules on marital status bias vary by area

November 16, 2003|H. May Spitz | Special to The Times

Can a landlord turn down an otherwise qualified couple because they can't produce a wedding license?

That depends on where they were applying for housing.

Rejecting applicants on the basis of marital status is legal in many parts of the country but is illegal in some cities and states.

In California, for example, marital status, familial status or age, among other things, cannot be the basis for applicant rejection.

Other state laws may be silent on discrimination specifics, but city laws have plenty to say.

Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Miami, Pittsburgh and Seattle are among the many cities that have specific laws on personal discrimination, including sexual orientation.

On the national level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has basic laws blanketing the country.

Among them: "Federal law prohibits housing discrimination based on your race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability."

Since the Fair Housing Act was adopted in 1968, HUD has played a lead role in administering and enforcing the law.

In 1988, mandatory enforcement was added to HUD's to-do list. Details can be found at www.hud.gov.

Discrimination, defined as "making improper distinctions or different treatment of applicants for housing," cannot exclude certain groups from the right to a home. What does federal law apply to?

* Race, color or physical characteristics. Race is defined as "the major biological divisions of mankind, divided by color and texture of hair, eye and skin color."

No matter what skin tone or hairdo an applicant has, the landlord should disregard those features.

* National origin, ancestry or ethnic background.

Coming from another country is challenging, and having a nonnative accent marks some tenants as foreigners. But being judged for having a strong accent is not only frustrating, it's also illegal.

* Religion. Landlords are not allowed to ask personal questions about worship or faith.

Sometimes neighborhoods and landlords appear to favor certain religions based on a nearby church or synagogue. But choice of religion is not a basis for approving or rejecting an applicant.

* Source of income. Receiving funds from government aid, for example, is acceptable as long as the source is documented.

The catch? Wherever the income springs from, the source has to be sufficient to cover all personal expenses, including an amount for the rental portion of expenses.

Typically, this means that rent should not exceed 33% of available income.

* Families. Some owner's use the "occupancy rule" to exclude families.

For example, the landlord allows adult roommates to occupy a two-bedroom place. But when a family of four applies for a similar two-bedroom, the owner suddenly declares a new policy of three people per unit, and rejects the family.

If the rejection was based on changing the rules to keep the family out, it is illegal.

* Age. Unless a viable reason exists, an elderly tenant has a right to occupy a rental.

Young tenants, as well, cannot be barred except for special housing for seniors, with specifications of age in a written, enforced policy.

* Disability. Judging an applicant by disability is not allowed. Barring a disabled tenant from checking out all available units is also illegal.

If an upstairs and downstairs unit are vacant, for example, the tenant has the right to view both, and can apply and be considered for either unit.

Owners have the right to reject an applicant for a legitimate business reason, such as lack of income, prior eviction or insufficient credit.

Most areas allow pets to be barred, with the exception of service animals. Details vary by city and state.

If you feel you have been treated unfairly, asking the manager or landlord for clarification is a good start.

Documenting responses is also advised.

Fair housing details and complaint information can be found at the HUD site www.hud.gov.

Links to information for state and local filings are also available at the site.

Reader comments may be sent to hmayspitz@aol.com. Attachments cannot be opened.

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