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If landlord prefers 'Google people,' is that illegal discrimination?

A retiree trying to rent an apartment in Silicon Valley meets a leasing agent who might care about how the applicants earn their money.

March 30, 2014|By Anky van Deursen

Question: I have lived in Silicon Valley my whole life. I am 70 years old and retired. I recently applied for housing at an apartment complex and asked the leasing agent what my chances were of getting an apartment. He told me they had received a lot of applications. When I asked if it was worth it to apply at all, he shrugged and said I was "up against some Google people." I was outraged. Am I being discriminated against, since he implied that I did not stand a chance of being chosen over a person who works for Google?   I have income that is three times the rent, so it's not a question of whether I can pay.

Answer: The answer to your question turns on whether you fall within a category of people protected under the fair housing laws. These laws protect only certain groups of people from being discriminated against in their efforts to acquire or enjoy their housing. These protected categories in California are: race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, familial status, marital status, sexual orientation or identity, age, source of income, genetic information and arbitrary. As you can see, being a "non-tech person" is not an explicit protected class of people.

On the other hand, the "arbitrary" category might apply. What it typically means to discriminate against someone for possessing arbitrary characteristics is to treat him or her differently for possessing a personal or physical characteristic unrelated to the ability to pay rent or otherwise be a good tenant. Some examples might be refusing to rent to people because they have tattoos or blue hair or because they are Giants fans.

Arbitrary discrimination arises from a housing provider's unreasonable prejudice that a particular person will be an undesirable tenant based on a trait or characteristic that has no logical or universal relationship to whether the person will in fact be a good tenant. In your case, then, there might be an argument that as long as you have the requisite amount of income to rent an apartment, good credit, good references from your previous landlords and are an otherwise qualified applicant, you should not be rejected simply because you don't have "Google money" or fit the image of a high-powered, working professional that the housing provider might have in mind.

It is unlawful in California to refuse to rent to someone because of the source of the applicant's income. Landlords can care about the amount of money you make to ensure that you will be able to pay the rent, but not where that money comes from.

This means housing providers cannot prefer tenants with jobs over tenants whose income is derived from some other source, such as a pension, disability benefits or Social Security benefits. As long as the amount of income meets the minimum standards, the landlord must consider that applicant on the same footing as an applicant with a job.

Here, there is some possibility that you are being discriminated against because your source of income is a retirement pension rather than a job. More investigation is required, however, to determine whether what the housing provider is doing is OK.

Van Deursen is director of Dispute Resolution Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to

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