Florida Fair Housing Act: A Guide For Landlords
In the not-too-distant past, it was perfectly legal for a landlord to refuse to rent to someone based on their race, religion, sex, or disability status. By the 1960s, however, the federal government and many states enacted laws forbidding this type of discrimination, namely the federal Fair Housing Act and a portion of Florida’s Civil Rights Act.
Broadly, these fair housing laws prohibit all types of housing discrimination based on a person’s protected characteristics, such as race, family status, disability, or religion. Housing discrimination can take many forms, including screening questions or policies designed to impact certain groups of people differently. Landlords should implement standard policies to avoid committing fair housing violations.
Based in Lithia, Florida, Eaton Realty provides full-service property management services. We can handle every aspect of running your investment properties, from staging and marketing your rentals to applications to collecting rent to evictions. Reach out today to learn more about our services for landlords, including helping you comply with all relevant state and federal fair housing laws.
What Is the Florida Fair Housing Law?
Florida’s fair housing law is part of Florida’s Civil Rights Act. It is designed to prevent discrimination in the housing market. Under this statute, it is against the law to do any of the following based on a person’s protected characteristic(s):
- Refuse to rent or sell housing
- Refuse to make a mortgage loan
- Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, rental, or sale
- Impose different terms or conditions on a loan
- Threaten, coerce, or intimidate a person for exercising a fair housing right
- Refuse to make reasonable changes to a dwelling to accommodate a disability (such as allowing an emotional support animal or service dog)
In Florida, a protected characteristic under the Civil Rights Act includes race, color, national origin, sex, disability, familial status, or religion. Importantly, landlords in Florida are also subject to the much broader federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). Under this law, it is illegal to discriminate in housing on the basis of a person’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), familial status, or disability.
This type of discrimination may occur in any number of ways. For example, consider a situation where a family contacts a landlord to inquire about renting a house. Based on their accent and names, the landlord suspects this family is Latino and may be from another country. The landlord has properties available for rent but lies and tells the family that they don’t have any vacancies. The family could file a complaint with the Florida Human Rights Commission for this apparent violation of the Civil Rights Act and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for violating the FHA.
These laws apply to everyone involved in a housing transaction, including landlords, property managers, brokers, real estate agents, banks, and appraisers. A violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act or the federal FHA could lead to severe consequences, including steep financial penalties or fines and the potential for a civil lawsuit.
What Do Landlords Need to Know about Fair Housing Laws?
In Florida, landlords should understand that both the state Civil Rights Law and the federal FHA apply to them, with some limited exceptions. Generally, if you are selling or renting out a single-family home without the use of an agent, an owner-occupied building with no more than 4 units, or housing operated by a religious organization or private club, you may be exempt from the federal FHA. In Florida, 55+ senior living communities can exclude families with children under the age of 18.
Landlords should also be aware that housing discrimination can take many forms. It often isn’t as straightforward as a landlord meeting a prospective tenant and then refusing to rent to them based on their race. There are a range of situations that may bring up an allegation of housing discrimination, such as:
- Evicting a tenant after learning of their religious beliefs
- Imposing higher rental standards (such as a credit report that you don’t otherwise require) for tenants with disabilities or who have other protected characteristics
- Charging a higher rent for families with kids or a tenant with an emotional support animal or service dog
- The use of selective marketing designed to advertise only to certain people (i.e., unless you are renting out a unit in a senior community, specifying that you will only accept applications from adults without children)
- Changing the terms of a lease agreement based on a person’s protected characteristic (such as not allowing overnight guests if you suspect that a tenant is gay)
- Requiring higher security deposits based on race or national origin
- Lying about the availability of a rental property based on a person’s protected characteristic
- Providing different amenities for residents based on their protected characteristics (i.e., not allowing families with children access to the clubhouse or other common areas)
- Not responding to maintenance or repair requests from residents based on their protected characteristics
- Using screening questions designed to determine if a prospective tenant has a protected characteristic (i.e., asking if they have kids or plan to start a family)
- Refusing to make a reasonable accommodation for a tenant with a disability
In other words, if you are treating a tenant or prospective tenant differently because of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), familial status, or disability, then you may be in violation of state and federal law. Landlords in Florida should strive to treat all tenants and applicants equally.
Landlords should also be mindful that they may have additional requirements when renting to tenants with disabilities. This can include accommodating an emotional support animal, adding grab bars to a bathroom, or installing a ramp to the entrance. Consult a Tampa area attorney if you have questions about your legal obligations regarding reasonable accommodations.
How to Avoid a Fair Housing Violation as a Florida Landlord
Fair housing laws may seem like a minefield, as many potential situations could lead to a complaint - and the potential for a hefty fine and a civil lawsuit. Ideally, landlords should treat everyone fairly. You can help to ensure that this happens by taking specific steps.
Understand Florida’s Fair Housing Statute and the Fair Housing Act
First, familiarize yourself with Florida’s Fair Housing statute and the federal Fair Housing Act outlined above. This will give you a better understanding of what is prohibited under the law and what you should avoid.
Create A Universal Screening Process
Second, create a standard process for screening tenants that applies to everyone. In other words, if you require references, a criminal background check, and a credit check for one applicant, every applicant should submit the same information. A property management company can help ensure that your process is standardized and that the questions you ask are not discriminatory.
Create Universal Tenant Requirements
Third, develop a set of tenant requirements that apply across the board. For example, if you won’t rent to tenants with what you consider bad credit, put that in writing with a specific number- and make sure that the policy is applied equally. Security deposits and lease terms should also be standard for all tenants.
Train Employees (If Applicable)
Fourth, if you have any employees, train them appropriately. You don’t want to get hit with a massive fine or have to pay tenant damages because someone you hired to help process applications or handle maintenance requests said or did something without your approval.
Set Internal Policies
Fifth, set your own internal policies that ensure that all tenants and applicants are treated fairly and respectfully. Being a landlord can be frustrating, and tenants aren’t always kind. Committing to treating tenants and applicants equally - and ensuring that anyone who works for or with you does the same - is a meaningful way to avoid violations.
Work With A Professional To Avoid Compliance Issues
Finally, if you are concerned about handling all of this - plus maintenance requests, marketing, showing properties, and more - your best option is to hire a property management company. An experienced property manager will have policies in place designed to ensure that all tenants are treated fairly and that procedures are standardized. They can also take over the more challenging aspects of owning an investment property, leaving you free to reap the financial benefits without the stress of the day-to-day work of being a landlord.
Own a Rental Property? Eaton Realty Can Help
Fair housing laws are an important way to protect against housing discrimination. However, if you own rental properties, ensuring you don’t run afoul of these laws can be difficult. Our experienced property managers are here for you.
Eaton Realty offers property management services throughout Hillsborough County, Florida. We streamline property management for landlords in the greater Tampa region, from screening prospective tenants to handling maintenance and repair requests to collecting rent. If you’d like to learn more, fill out our online contact form or give us a call at 813-672-8022 to talk to a team member.
The information disclosed above about fair housing laws does not constitute legal or financial advice. Use this information at your own discretion and consult a legal or financial professional for further guidance on state and federal fair housing laws.