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Landlord wants to find Christian tenants without breaking laws

Can a landlord ask about a rental applicant's religious beliefs? Would it violate fair housing laws to advertise rentals only in Christian newspapers or on Christian websites?

January 27, 2013|By Martin Eichner

Question: I am a first-time landlord who just bought a six-unit apartment building as a personal investment. My Christian faith is extremely important to me and affects every aspect of my life. I would prefer to rent out the apartments in my building to other Christians, not because I am prejudiced against non-Christians but because I like the idea of creating a community of believers living together in fellowship.

I have been told that the fair housing laws do not allow me to specify in my advertising that I will accept only Christian tenants. Even if that is the rule, in my own selection process can I ask about an applicant's religious beliefs and give a preference to an applicant who is Christian if all other qualifications are even? By making a selection on this basis, I think I would just be exercising my own religious freedom guaranteed by our laws.

Also, would it violate the fair housing laws if I advertise rentals only in Christian newspapers or on Christian websites?

Answer: Both federal and state fair housing laws prohibit refusing to rent to a prospective tenant because of his or her religion, and you would be doing just that by choosing one applicant over another based on the fact that one of the applicants is a Christian, when all other qualifications are the same.

Even though you may not feel like you have discriminatory motives when you prefer Christian tenants as a way of practicing your religion, operating rental property is a business, subject to all of the state and federal laws that govern such a business, including fair housing laws.

It is true that a recognized religious organization is allowed to prefer tenants of that organization's religion in some circumstances, but an individual with strong religious beliefs such as yourself is not included in that exception to the general fair housing rules.

As for your second question, federal and state fair housing laws do not prescribe where or how you find your tenants. As long as your rental advertisements do not contain language that indicates a preference for Christian tenants or in any way discourages non-Christians from applying, and as long as you do not prefer Christians over non-Christians in the selection process, simply limiting your rental advertisements to particular venues would probably not violate the fair housing laws.

Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a nonprofit agency providing tenant-landlord and fair housing counseling in four Bay Area counties. To submit a question, contact info@housing.org.

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