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2007-07-09 15:39:00

Fair Housing Primer: What is a "Protected Class"?

Historically and statistically, there have been identifiable groups within our society that have received unfavorable treatment with regard to housing. They have been rejected or prevented from renting or buying real property, given different terms, paid higher rents or security deposits, or experienced a lower level of service during tenancy than other groups of people.

Do "Protected Classes" Get Special Rights?

The intention of federal and state fair housing laws is to require that ALL persons be given the same treatment, the same services, and offered an equal opportunity to live in a home of their choice--in other words, the same rights as everyone else. The only exceptions to this are handicapped or disabled persons who have been given several special rights in order to establish equal opportunity.

Are "Protected Classes" the Same Throughout the U.S.?

The protected classes have been identified at the federal, state, and in some cases, local levels of government. There are some variations which allow for differences in the make-up of individual communities. At the federal level there are seven classes:

•  race
•  color
•  religion
•  sex
•  national origin
•  familial status
•  handicap

California has added marital status, sexual orientation, age, ancestry, and source of income, while other states have added military status, Section 8 and other groups. Some cities have added their own classes, such as the inclusion of "size" in San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

Which Group Experiences the Most Incidents of Discrimination?

The majority of discrimination cases filed in California and wth H.U.D. focus on disability. Race/color is second and familial status third.

Hare are several things to know about several of the federal "protected classes."

  • Color: Not to be confused with race, there can be many shades of skin color within each race. Persons with darker skin tend to experience more frequent incidents of discrimination in housing, as well as in other day-to-day situations).
  • Sex: Sexual harassment is covered in this protected class, and is a rapidly growing area of litigation.
  • Familial status: Pregnancy is included in this category. The only housing which can generally exclude children is bona fide senior housing.
  • Handicap or Disability: This group covers both mental and physical disability. The two special rights extended to the disabled include: 1) the right to make reasonable modifications to a dwelling to enable them to live there comfortably, and 2) the responsibility of management to make reasonable accommodations in order to allow the disabled person to fully enjoy their tenancy. An accommodation, in most cases, involves modifying a policy or rule, such as allowing assistive animals when no pets are allowed, or assigning special parking spaces.

In California, which is often on the cutting edge of legal issues, two additional concepts were added in January, 2000, that pertain to protected classes: perception and association.

  • Perception: If someone discriminates against a person, thinking that he or she is from a protected class, but the person isn't from that protected class, it is considered an act of discrimination.
  • Association: Discriminating against someone because his or her friends or guests are from protected classes is also a violation.

Technically, we all belong to some of these protected classes by virtue of being male or female, married or single, our race or other characteristic. If management treats EVERYONE who comes in the door or calls on the phone with equal courtesy and provides the same opportunities to EVERYONE, the need for "protected classes" will be a thing of the past. 

(D. J. Ryan is the Director of Client Education and a fair housing specialist in the Fair Housing Department for the law firm of Kimball, Tirey and St. John, with offices in San Diego, Los Angeles, Newport Beach, Ontario, Sacramento, Bay Area and Las Vegas. She served as executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association from 1977 to 1991, and has been a fair housing trainer and consultant for the past fifteen years. She can be reached at 800-338-6039. )

The above discussion is general in nature and should not be construed as individualized legal advice. Readers are cautioned to seek individualized legal assistance based on a detailed analysis of their particular facts and circumstances. If you have any questions regarding the above material or any other matter involving landlord-tenant issues, you may contact the Law Offices of Kimball, Tirey and St. John, 800-338-6039.

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