This is a guest post by Kate Agnelli. Kate is a Coordinator of Systemic Investigations and Enforcement at Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME). She earned her M.S.W. from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. Her background includes work in corrections and in the Virginia legislature, as well as with homeless youth in the Raleigh/Durham area.
Having children should not present an additional challenge to finding adequate housing. The U.S. government agrees, and, in 1988, the federal Fair Housing Act was amended to include familial status as an additional protected classes. The Act, as amended, offers protection from housing discrimination based on “familial status,” or the presence of children under the age of 18 in the household. Familial status protections also extend to women who are pregnant, and to people seeking custody of a child through guardianship or adoption.
While we continue to see blatant cases of housing discrimination based on familial status —i.e., an advertisement that explicitly states “no kids,” or a landlord stating she’d prefer to rent to a family without kids—discrimination is also often contained in what we call the applying of “terms and conditions” of leases and community rules.
Below are the most comment violations of unlawful housing discrimination based on familial status :
- Charging a higher rent or security deposit for families with children. Landlords may try to justify a higher rent or security deposit from a family with two young boys because they are certain the boys will do more damage than a family without children would, but this is a form of housing discrimination. Rent and security deposits must be the same for everyone and not charged on a per person basis Whether someone has children is not a good indicator of whether damage will occur. It is best to rely upon landlord references to determine if a resident(s) can meet lease requirements or has a history of violations. If damage is done, violations can be issued and costs sought as long as such costs are sought for all tenants who violate the lease in this manner regardless of the presence of children.
- Requiring families with children on ground floors of multi-family units. This is an unlawful practice known as “steering.” Families with children should have the same housing options as families without children when it comes to where in an apartment complex they live, and this right is guaranteed through fair housing laws. If noise violations occur, they can be enforced like they would be for any tenant who violates such rules.
- Requiring that there be separate bedrooms for children of opposite genders. A landlord may not place restrictions regarding opposite-gender children sharing bedrooms, or about parents and children sharing bedrooms. Of course, a landlord can set reasonable occupancy standards for a unit (two people per bedroom is typically considered reasonable), but he or she is not allowed input on who sleeps in which bedrooms. This is a decision for the parent or legal guardian to determine.
- Raising the rent when another child joins the household. A landlord can’t base the rent on how many children a tenant has. It is a better policy to charge per bedroom assuming a maximum household occupancy for the unit (typically two people per bedroom is reasonable). Charging per child unfairly impacts families with children because such households are typically larger.
- Making rules about curfews and the use of community facilities that limit children’s enjoyment. Landlords and homeowners’ associations may make rules governing the conduct of their residents but they cannot require that rules only apply to children. This means that any curfews or restrictions on the use of community facilities must be enforced for adults and children alike. If children are singled out for the enforcement of such rules only, this is likely a violation of fair housing laws.
This last example corresponds to a case that played out right here in Virginia in 2009.
A Virginian family moved into a condominium complex in Chesapeake and after a series of rules changes stemming from resident complaints about playing in common areas, residents were no longer allowed to throw balls, Frisbees or other toys in common areas.
The rule itself did not single out children, but between 2008 and 2009, the only residents for whom the rule was enforced were families with children. At least six different families were fined $50 on several occasions because their children alleged to have violated the rule limiting “sports activity”. This family was fined on three different occasions, and finally filed a fair housing complaint when they were fined $50 because their child was playing football outside. After investigation of the allegations, a determination was issued by the Virginia Fair Housing Board that families with children had been discriminated against in violation of fair housing laws.
When we think about how important a safe living space and the ability to exercise and play are for adults and children, it becomes clear why ensuring housing options for families with children is so important. Where a child grows up affects his or her future in all manner of ways, and that future should not be compromised because a child’s family has a difficult time finding a home simply because there are children in the household.
This information is not intended to be legal advice. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.