Fair Housing Enforcement: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know

Fair Housing enforcement
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Guest blogger Jo Becker, Education/Outreach Specialist, Fair Housing Council of Oregon

When I’m out in the field teaching fair housing classes I’m often asked what the consequences of a fair housing violation is.  Following is a primer on the subject.  You can get a visual perspective on the process by viewing our Enforcement Flow Chart at www.FHCO.org/pdfs/EnfFlowChart.pdf but following is a more detailed outline.

The federal Fair Housing Act makes any denial of or differential treatment in housing based on the following protected classes illegal:  race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (children) and disability.  Oregon law also prohibits discrimination based on marital status, (legal) source of income (including, now Section 8 and other housing subsidies), and sexual orientation and gender identity.  (Visit FHCO.org for further information on the area you live or own properties.)

It should be noted that one need not intend to discriminate for their words, actions, or advertising to have an illegally discriminatory affect.  That is, affect not intention is the barometer in a fair housing case.

 How is the Fair Housing Act Enforced?

Often the Fair Housing Council of Oregon (FHCO) is the first line of defense. We receive fair housing-related inquiries and complaints from across the state.  Each call is processed and assistance provided whenever and wherever possible.  We offer information and referral to appropriate resources if an inquiry is not related to fair housing.

As a private nonprofit, we serve as a fair housing resource in Oregon but we are not an enforcement agency, per se.  If an inquiry appears to be a bona fide allegation of fair housing discrimination, we assist in whatever way the inquirer desires.  We might help mediate the issue or contact the housing provider to advocate on the individual’s behalf; we may help the victim file a formal complaint or conduct an investigation using witness interviews, testing, etc.

Testing is a nationally recognized and court-tested practice aimed at identifying whether or not illegal housing discrimination has occurred. Both complaint-based and audit testing is done by FHCO.  Testing is used to identify ordinary the business practices (of a company, an individual, etc.) and whether or not these practices constitute a violation of the laws.

Other enforcement-related activities may involve filing a complaint with a regulatory agency; either on our own behalf or in assisting a housing consumer who claims a fair housing violation has been committed against them.  At times, we also file lawsuits with private attorneys.  That said, more than 75% of the bona fide fair housing complaints we receive annually are resolved informally and never make it to the formal complaint process.

 What Happens After a Complaint or Lawsuit is Filed?

Fair housing complaints can be filed with the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or a state agency such as the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) in Oregon.  A complainant has up to one year from the date of the last alleged incident of illegal discrimination to file a claim.  Alternatively, one may file a suit in court up to two years after the last incident.

If filed with a government agency, that office (HUD or BOLI) will initiate an investigation to determine if there is evidence of illegal discrimination or will attempt to conciliate the complaint with the parties involved.  If conciliation fails, the agency will move to determine whether or not “reasonable cause” exists to believe that fair housing laws have been violated.

If the government agency finds “no reasonable cause,” the complaint is dismissed.  However, if evidence of a violation is found, a hearing will be scheduled before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  If either party elects to proceed with the case in federal court, then either the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) or the state attorney general will represent the case on behalf of the regulatory body.  The decisions of the ALJ or the federal district court are subject to review by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

If the complainant prevails in the case, s/he may be awarded compensatory damages.  These can include any out-of-pocket costs the complainant spent while obtaining alternative housing and any additional costs, including rent, associated with that housing.  Emotional distress damages for such things as humiliation, mental anguish or other psychological injuries may be levied and are in addition to out-of-pocket losses.

In cases tried before an ALJ, a civil penalty of up to $16,000 may be imposed for a first violation up to $65,000 for a third violation.  If the case is brought by the DOJ, civil penalties can be as high as $100,000.

When heard in federal court, punitive damages may be awarded.  These do not reimburse the plaintiff for losses actually suffered; instead, they punish the wrongdoer.  Punitive damages are awarded only if the plaintiff shows the defendant’s conduct was “willful, wanton, or malicious” specifically motivated by an intent to exclude the plaintiff for illegally discriminatory reasons.

Attorney’s fees may be awarded to the prevailing party.  In addition, courts may issue injunctions if they feel prompt action is necessary to prevent immediate and irreparable harm.

In cases involving illegal discrimination in home mortgage loans or home improvement loans, a suit may be filed under both the Fair Housing Act and / or the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.  In this case, additional agencies may be involved.

If you have questions about fair housing law, please consider us a resource and let us know!  You may want to start on our website where we have not only the Enforcement Flow Chart posted but also an entire page with tons of resource documents and links just for housing providers like yourself.  You can find these resources at http://fhco.org/hs_provider_info.htm.

This article brought to you by the Fair Housing Council; a civil rights organization.  All rights reserved © 2014. Write jbecker@FHCO.org to reprint articles or inquire about ongoing content for your own publication.

To learn more…  Learn more about fair housing and / or sign up for our free, periodic newsletter at www.FHCO.org.

Qs about this article?  ‘Interested in articles for your company or trade association?  Contact Jo Becker at jbecker@FHCO.org or 800/424-3247 Ext. 150

Want to schedule an in-office fair housing training program or speaker for corporate or association functions?  Visit www.FHCO.org/pdfs/classlist.pdf