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Legal assistance for victims of discrimination

Overview

Renters or homebuyers who believe they have been victims of housing discriminationThe unequal treatment of members of various groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, religion, citizenship status, a combination of those identified, and/or other categories. (Source) may not know where to turn and may have limited financial resources to spend on legal counsel.
Legal assistance for victims of discrimination (people talking seriously in a meeting)

The process of filing an administrative complaint or a lawsuit can be long and complicated, and a number of organizations help to ensure that individuals and families encountering discrimination get a fair hearing as they pursue a remedy. Assistance is typically provided by a non-profit organization that provides legal representation as well as advice, referrals, and other information.

This section describes some of the considerations for cities, towns and counties interested in supporting or providing legal assistance for victims of housing discrimination.

Approach

Those experiencing housing discrimination may not know how to pursue a complaint or have the resources or expertise to build a successful case. Legal assistance provided by local government, fair housing groups, or legal aid attorneys can provide victims with needed information, guidance, and assistance throughout the process.

Some local governments have staff, including lawyers, available to support and direct victims of discrimination. These staff can offer direct legal support or refer victims to other local organizations which can provide low cost services. Municipal attorneys represent the interests of the municipality, not the individual or household experiencing discrimination, which may or may not align directly.

In addition to providing legal support in pursuing a complaint, local agencies also can provide information to the public about the process of filing a complaint. Providing accessible educational materials and clear instructions about the complaint process can help victims navigate the process successfully and choose to pursue a complaint in the way that works best for them.

Local fair housing and legal aid attorneys can also provide guidance and support to victims, including formal legal representation. Both legal aid and fair housing organizations rely on outside funding since their clients do not pay the full cost of the services they receive. Local governments often provide financial support to help ensure these services are available. Local governments can also publicize information about, make referrals to, or partner in other ways with these non-profit organizations. For example, a local government may partner with a non-profit fair housing group on a Fair Housing Month campaign to raise visibility of the issue and of the non-profit organization.

Some local governments and local fair housing non-profits also play a role in enforcing local and federal fair housing laws. HUD provides certification, funding, and resources for local organizations to conduct this work. Among other roles, some local government agencies or non-profits will investigate a claim of discrimination by sending testers to the property to see whether testers with similar characteristics (except for the discriminatory factor being tested) are treated differently. Testing can be an effective means of verifying discrimination, but has a cost, which local governments can help to cover.

Eligibility

Federal law prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. State and local laws are often more expansive. These laws may add sexual orientation, gender identity, or source of income to the list of protected classes.

Fair housing laws prohibit discrimination in the process of obtaining a home (renting a unit or buying a home) as well as in obtaining a mortgage. Laws cover such actions as refusing to rent a home on the grounds of a protected characteristic, or refusing to make reasonable accommodations to allow persons with disabilities to use and enjoy their homes. It also includes offering unfavorable terms or conditions in a real estate transaction such as in a mortgage.

The cost of assistance in pursuing a housing discrimination complaint can vary based on location, income, the type of assistance, and the organization providing the service. In New York City, there is no charge for filing a complaint through the Human Rights Office. Anyone can also file a claim themselves with HUD. If a victim wants to file a civil lawsuit, families with incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty level generally can receive free services through legal aid organizations. Local fair housing non-profits may also offer free or low-cost legal services, though these fees and limits will vary across organizations. If a claim is successful, legal fees are often included in the settlement amount.

Examples

  • The Legal Aid Society of San Diego provides legal assistance to people who face housing discrimination, among other legal assistance, in San Diego, CA. Those seeking assistance can meet with an attorney that can help assess the situation and aid in filing a complaint. The Fair Housing Center receives support from the County of San Diego and the cities of San Diego, Encinitas, Escondido, Sam Marcos, Oceanside and Vista.
  • Metro Fair Housing Services, Inc is a fair housing non-profit organization in Atlanta, GA that offers support for those facing housing discrimination. The organization helps with claim investigation and also advocates for victims by counseling and assisting with submitting a complaint. It receives support from HUD and from local governments including the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County, Fulton County and Clayton County.
  • New York City’s Human Rights Office provides online informational materials to help victims of housing discrimination navigate the complaint process. It also offers attorney services and guidance about how to pursue a claim. A flow chart, FAQ page and YouTube video about the process inform the public about the process in New York City and the various options open to victims who want to pursue a complaint.

Related resources

  • The National Fair Housing Alliance provides support to local fair housing programs and offers a look up tool to identify community fair housing organizations across the country. This non-profit also releases an annual report on fair housing.
  • The Legal Services Corporation is a national non-profit established by Congress in 1974 to support legal aid services. Its website includes a general look up tool that allows those seeking help to find a local legal aid resource. The organization also provides data about pro-bono legal services. This report shows that housing was the number 2 issue legal aid attorneys took on in 2016. State-specific resources, like this online directory for the State of California, helps those seeking help for housing discrimination find local free support.
  • Details of the federal fair housing complaint process can be found on the HUD website. HUD also provides two competitive grant programs supporting fair housing work, the Fair Housing Assistance Program and the Fair Housing Initiatives Program. These programs fund fair housing enforcement and activities by local government and non-profit organizations.

See also:
Enforcement of fair housing laws
Fair housing education for real estate professionals and consumers
Source of income laws

Additional Resources

Administering agencies

State and local housing departments, human rights commissions

City and County governments

Policy objectives

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