Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia
Fair Housing Laws

Consumer Materials

                *Housing providers, please see the Provider guide.

Consumers Guide to Fair Housing

The Fair Housing Act was passed four decades ago, yet housing discrimination remains a major problem in southeastern Pennsylvania and throughout the United States. These days, housing discrimination is more subtle. Consumers are met with a smile and a handshake, but are still denied housing opportunities.

The Fair Housing Act  
Title VIII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended, is known as the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate in any type of housing related transaction on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Gender
  • Familial Status (the presence of children under 18 in the household, including pregnant women & anyone securing legal custody of a child)
  • Disability

Rental housing, sales, mortgage lending, homeowners insurance, and appraisals are all covered by the Fair Housing Act.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act  
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is a state law that also makes it illegal to discriminate in any type of housing related transaction on the basis of age (above the age of 40).

Advertising Guidelines  
It is illegal to print or publish a discriminatory advertisement with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on any of the protected classes mentioned.

Generally, a housing advertisement should describe the property itself, and not the potential occupant. For example, an advertisement for a housing unit stating "no children" would be considered discriminatory, as it limits families with children from occupying that unit and therefore violates the familial status provision of the Fair Housing Act.


  • "Mrs. Murphy's exemption": If the dwelling has four or less units, the owner lives in one of the units and does not use the services of a real estate agent
  • Housing run by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy solely to members, as long as the organization does not discriminate based on race
  • Qualified senior housing, which is exempt only from the familial status provision of the Act. Qualified senior communities must meet the following standards:
    • 100% of the community is 62 years or older, or
    • 80% of the households have at least one resident 55 years or older
In addition, no housing is exempt from the advertising guidelines, which state that you cannot make, print or publish a discriminatory statement. Any exempt housing that violates these guidelines loses that exemption and can be held liable under the Act.

Activities That Might Indicate Discrimination in Rentals, Sales, Mortgage Lending and Homeowners Insurance  

  • Misrepresenting the availability of housing
  • The information told to you in person does not match the information told to you on the phone
  • The landlord, lender or insurer takes an application from you and promises to call but never does
  • The sign says "vacancy," but the landlord says it was just rented
  • The sign says "vacancy," but the landlord says it was just rented
  • The landlord imposes burdensome conditions for rental occupancy
  • The rental or sales agent claims the property is unsafe for children
  • Advertisements stating "mature adults preferred", "adult/family sections", or "no children"
  • Steering, or when the agent refuses to show a property in a particular neighborhood or discourages you from considering that neighborhood because of the racial makeup of that neighborhood
  • Different terms and conditions in townhouse, condominium, or manufactured housing communities regarding your children (for example, requiring an extra security deposit because you have children)
  • The interest rate and points offered are much higher than current average
  • The mortgage or insurance company has a policy that eliminates your home from a loan or policy from that institution (for example: "We don't insure properties with flat roofs")
  • One insurance company's quote is significantly different from others
  • Threats, coercion or intimidation directed towards anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others in exercising those rights

Permissible Standards and Activities under the Law  

  • Fair Housing Laws do not guarantee any person a right to housing they cannot afford
  • Property owners may set rents at whatever the market will bear
  • An agent or property owner can adopt and apply uniform, objective and nondiscriminatory criteria designed to evaluate a prospective occupant's credit worthiness, such as setting income standards, imposing a credit check or criminal background check
  • An agent or property owner is not required to rent to users and dealers of illegal drugs

Housing Issues Related to Persons with Disabilities  
Under the law, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person's major life activities. This includes wheelchair users, those who are visually impaired, those limited by emotional problems, mental illness, difficulties associated with aging, or those suffering from HIV/AIDS. It does not apply to the illegal use of drugs, but does protect those who are currently in or have successfully completed a recovery program.

Reasonable Accommodations  
A change in rules, policies, or practices so that a person with a disability can use and enjoy the property.
Example 1: A landlord must allow a reserved parking space for a person with a disability even though everyone else must park on a first come first served basis

Example 2: A landlord must allow a person with a visual impairment to have a guide dog even though they have a "no pets" policy

Reasonable Modifications  
A change in the physical structure of a dwelling so that a person with disabilities can use and enjoy the property.

Example 1: The installation of a ramp to the front door

Example 2: The installation of grab bars in a bathroom

Note: Reasonable modifications are generally made at the expense of the tenant. However, if federal funds are used to subsidize the housing, then the housing provider would be responsible to bear the costs of the modifications.

Reasonable accommodation & modification requests must be granted by a housing provider, as long as they are reasonable.

Familial Status Issues  
Under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to discriminate against families with children. Examples of illegal discrimination include:

  • Policies that state "no children" or segregate housing so that children are only allowed in certain areas
  • The restriction of children because of "unsafe conditions"
  • Policies that do not allow parents and children, or male and female children to share bedrooms
These types of decisions are the parent's choice to make, and cannot be dictated by a housing provider.

Occupancy policies that are more restrictive than two people per bedroom may also be a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Generally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) states that an occupancy policy of two people per bedroom is generally reasonable. The reasonableness of any occupancy policy, however, may depend on factors such as the size of the bedrooms), the overall size and configuration of the dwelling, the capacity of septic, sewer or other building systems, or the existence of state or local zoning laws.

What to Do if You Encounter Discrimination  
If you believe that you may be a victim of housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability or familial status, contact:

Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia

(267) 419-8918 or
Toll Free: (866)540-FAIR (3247)

455 Maryland Drive, Suite 190
Fort Washington, PA 19034


FHCSP can help investigate your complaint and assist you in determining what action should be taken.

Further Reading 

  • The National Fair Housing Advocate: http://www.fairhousing.com
  • The Fair Housing Act: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/FHLaws/yourrights.cfm
  • Advertising Guidelines Under the Fair Housing Act: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/sect804achtengerg.pdf
  • Occupancy Standards Under the Fair Housing Act: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/occupancystds.pdf
  • HUD/DOJ Joint Statement on Reasonable Accommodations: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/huddojstatement.pdf
  • HUD/DOJ Joint Statement on Reasonable Modifications: http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/disabilities/reasonable_modifications_mar08.pdf
This booklet has been produced by support from: 

U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development

Delaware County Office of Housing & Community Development

Bucks County Department of Community & Business Development

Chester County Department of Community Development

The Philadelphia Foundation

The Patricia Kind Family Foundation

Montgomery County Department of Housing & Community Development

Underwritten by the Citizens Bank Foundation

Ethel Sergeant Clark Smith Memorial Fund

TD Charitable Foundation

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