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Are temporary rentals covered by fair housing laws?

Rentals are exempt from fair housing protections under certain circumstances, but federal and state rules differ.

November 28, 2013|By Martin Eichner

Question: I own a second house where my son lives while he attends college during the school year. During summer breaks, he usually goes to live someplace else for an internship or he travels, so I like to rent out rooms in the house to teachers who are in town for continuing education classes. Generally the teachers stay anywhere from a week to the whole summer. I don't know much about being a landlord. Would any fair housing laws apply to these summer rental arrangements?

Answer: Fair housing protections exist under both federal and state law. The scope of protection differs between the two. Both statutes cover "dwellings," but under the federal statute, a dwelling is exempted from the fair housing laws if a homeowner-landlord is renting a single-family house and owns three or fewer single-family houses, or if a homeowner is renting out a dwelling room or unit that contains living quarters, and he/she lives at the site and shares these living quarters with the tenant.

Based on your description, these exemptions would exclude your summer rental home, since you own fewer than three rental homes.

However, the only exemption under the California statute applies to the rental of a single-family dwelling where the owner of the dwelling lives there and rents a portion of the house to no more than one person. Your second house would not qualify for the exemption under state law, so the only question left would be whether the temporary rental arrangements you describe qualify as rental of a "dwelling."

For purposes of fair housing laws, a "dwelling" can be a temporary or seasonal rental, as well as a time share, cooperative, shelter or other non-traditional housing. Any structure can be a "dwelling," in fact, if the occupants intend to remain for a "significant period" of time, and they view the structure as a "place to return to."

For example, a person living in a motel for three months while his house is being renovated is protected under the fair housing laws, but another person staying in the same motel for a week while he attends a conference is not. In your case, a teacher renting a room for only a week to attend a short course is probably not protected under the fair housing laws, but a teacher renting a room for the entire summer may well be.

Your question presents another potential issue. If you meant to tell us that you follow a practice of renting only to teachers, or having a preference for teachers, that practice might constitute a form of arbitrary discrimination in housing that runs afoul of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act. This law prohibits discrimination in housing based on personal traits or characteristics, such as refusing to rent to students, or people with long hair.

Discriminating in favor of teachers is, in effect, discriminating against anyone who isn't a teacher. A much better approach is to choose tenants based on ability to pay and rental history.

Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to info@housing.org.

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